“Most nonprofits (58%) identify the executive director as having responsibility for government relations or public policy. And the executive director is perceived as having the most influence regarding decisions concerning government relations. Yet organizations where the executive director has responsibility for public policy are less involved in public policy than organizations that assign responsibility to others.
Organizations most involved in public policy—whether testifying before a legislative or administrative hearing, lobbying on behalf of or against a proposed bill or other policy pronouncement, encouraging members to write, call, fax or email policy-makers, or releasing research reports to the media, public, or policy-makers—have staff, a board committee or an outside lobbyist assigned the responsibility for public policy.”
—Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project (SNAP) Report
Editors’ Note: This article is adapted from a recently published book entitled The Board Member’s Guide to Lobbying and Advocacy, by Marcia Avner.1 As other articles in this issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly emphasize, advocacy is a core activity for nonprofits that we ignore at our own risk. Our boards are a potentially powerful and greatly underused resource for advocacy.
The evidence and our instincts are clear: board involvement makes nonprofit advocacy more effective. So how do we tap this source of power more consistently and sustainably?
In the continuing discussion about what the work of nonprofit boards ought to be, there is a marked lack of attention to the board’s role in helping to maintain a reasonable public policy environment in which the nonprofit can do effective work. Board involvement in advocacy is one area that shapes the context for all other nonprofit activity. The majority of a board’s activity will likely be reactive to a situation predetermined by others. A strong advocacy program can aid in changing the basic rules and resources for nonprofits and their communities.
The potential is great and the opportunities seem obvious. So why aren’t more board members involved in advocacy and lobbying? Nonprofits need the leadership, wisdom, talents, and connections of board members in advocacy activities, but more often than not, it is still the staff and program participants who meet with legislators, political appointees, and the press.
In the current context, both in terms of public policy on substantive issues and in terms of our regulatory environments, we can’t afford to waste the advocacy potential of boards—but how to start? The short answer is that you must be intentional in your plan for board involvement. If your board does not have a history in advocacy, a full range of tools for building board involvement needs to be tapped to recruit, excite, train, involve, inform, and applaud board engagement. But first, examine what your board’s involvement can mean to your organization—envision the best-case scenario. Write out roles and responsibilities so that you have explored the possibilities and are prepared to tap this invaluable resource, and recruit current and future board members who add value to your advocacy efforts. Here is one board member’s story of turning the personal into the political.
Bill Sellars’ Story
Sellers is a board member of the Arc of King County, Board Member at Large of the Arc of Washington State.
“Having a daughter with Down syndrome let me into the field of public policy work. I became a board member of Arc of King County because I wanted to make sure that my community had the services and opportunities my daughter needed. And I felt I might as well lobby for all individuals with developmental disabilities at the same time I was advocating for her needs. Arc’s introduction of Citizen Lobbyists and Self-Advocates as vehicles of advocacy to legislative bodies has proven to be incredibly valuable.
“When the Citizen Lobbyists of the Arc successfully lobbied for funding that provides employment and training in the transition from high school to work (Education for All), my daughter benefited; she was taught in integrated settings and has been employed for 12 years as an office assistant in the corporate headquarters of a large natural food cooperative where she works 24 hours a week. Her income allows her to live rather independently in shared housing with four other young adults who have different developmental disabilities. The funding that we lobbied for also created a whole group of working taxpayers whose jobs and incomes pay for their housing, clothing, healthcare, transportation, continuing education, and leisure activities.
“The experiences I’ve had in public policy have proved to me over and over again that a handful of people can make a tremendous difference. After all, it was four mothers and one law student who brought Education for All (now called IDEA) to our nation.”
This story illustrates how board members can be key players—as organizational and community leaders—in shaping nonprofit policy work. They can be the sector’s strongest voices because of the fact that they are committed volunteers. In the case of boards who include constituents as members, they speak not only from personal experience but also from an organizational base that exhibits concern for the larger community of those affected by the issue at hand. Unfortunately, however, board leadership in nonprofit advocacy is still the exception rather than the rule.
How can we begin to build new board involvement while expanding the roles of board members already fully engaged in advocacy?
As with any campaign, those working to engage boards in advocacy need to consider key questions:
- What is the opportunity?
- What are our goals?
- What are the problems and barriers?
- Who makes the decisions and how can we influence them?
Board members are obvious resources for a strong advocacy program for the following reasons:
- Board members are community leaders by virtue of the fact that they serve on a nonprofit board representing community interests.
- Board members may provide access to opinion shapers and decision-makers.
- Their volunteer status and dedication to a nonprofit’s mission and goals, along with their commitment of time, resources, and service, make them an organization’s most credible spokespersons.
- Board members are stewards and champions for the organization’s work, involved in its mission, goals, strategies, programs, and possibilities. Advocacy is part of that role.
- As governors for the organization, board members are positioned to enrich strategic planning for policy work, set the direction for advocacy and lobbying efforts, and allocate resources for this component of nonprofit work. Without their leadership, public policy work might never be integrated into a nonprofit organization’s plans and options.
- Board members use their networks to help build alliances and coalitions for nonprofit advocacy.
- Board members can be powerful messengers in legislative and administrative arenas.
Bill Malloy’s Story
Malloy is a board member of the Center for Human Development.
“In December 2000, I joined the board of the Center for Human Development (CHD), an umbrella organization for over 72 human service providers in the Springfield, Massachusetts area.
“In spring 2001, board members of various human service organizations geared up to advocate for government funding to increase the salaries of low-paid human service workers. We wrote letters and e-mails and visited elected officials to request increased funding. Although unsuccessful, the board members continued to meet and set goals. In 2002, during the state’s budget crisis, we rallied to prevent funding cuts to programs. Our goal was to create a new emphasis on administrative reform. In fact, we have had so much success with this effort, we’ve brought the salary issue back into the forefront.
“I believe it has been extremely important that board members led these efforts, because in both cases it wasn’t our jobs on the line. We could speak from the point of view of a community leader to tell officials what effect these issues have on our organizations and the communities we serve.”
How Advocacy Boards Act
For nonprofits to fully integrate advocacy into their overall strategy for meeting their mission and to maximize clout, board members need to be engaged in meeting key governance and action roles.
In high-effectiveness mode, nonprofits will have boards of directors who:
- are instrumental in making public policy a priority for their nonprofit organization;
- decide issues and positions after fully consulting and engaging the constituency they represent;
- have a clear discipline for ensuring those constituencies are consulted and for ensuring they are engaged in creating and vetting advocacy positions;
- integrate strategic planning and advocacy conversations;
- lead and serve on policy committees;
- are key messengers to elected and appointed officials and their staff, as well as the media; and
- value advocacy as a strategy and work with staff to build capacity for advocacy for the long term.
On a broader scale, to maximize the effectiveness of nonprofit organizations we must have a voice at the key policy tables on the large and small issues that affect life in our communities and organizations. To ensure that this seat is reserved for us, we mu