The nonprofit voice in public policy is essential, and often present: early childhood education, food supports, access to health care—the list is substantial. These issues, particularly when directly connected to core services, can be the natural ones on which nonprofits take positions and use their “voice” in the public discourse. But what about the big, thorny, framing issues that affect the nonprofit sector and the communities we serve but which too often lack the voice of nonprofits? Budget and tax policy, immigration, human rights, for example, which can be among the most polarizing and controversial of issues in the political discourse, tend to be those with a smaller voice from the nonprofit sector. Often the diverse personal views on boards of directors are described—and accepted—as the reason for non-participation in critical policy issues. But, by taking three critical steps, boards of directors can use their views to their advantage and arrive at strong organizational positions on the complex policy issues of the day.
A strategic nonprofit organization recruits board members based on a careful needs assessment and attention to building a diverse membership with common dedication to mission. Strong boards are comprised of members who, despite different roles in the community and varied political views, come together with shared purpose and vision. Sometimes, though, this diversity constrains the organization’s ability to engage as a critical voice in public policy matters—a voice that should be a natural component toward advancing an organization’s mission but can be squelched by the very diversity that it desires.
Nonprofit organizations attract board members for a variety of strategic purposes—financial acumen, access to resources, and human resource expertise, among others. A sophisticated board might include a partner in a large law firm, a bank owner, a real estate agent, and the CEO of a midsize local business. These people might bring the requisite talents for governance and fiduciary oversight, and provide important community connections designed to bring much-needed resources and goodwill to the organization. Engaging these voices, their talents, and their passion for the organization’s mission is a smart strategy.
But too often it is precisely these voices, and our consensus culture, that stifle an important component of advancing our mission—being an active, visible, and effective voice in public policy. In order to achieve many of the goals our organizations seek, such as ending hunger, reducing teen pregnancy, housing the homeless, and ensuring that all children succeed in school, our voices, expertise, and point of view must be included in the policy dialogue. But when the policies we’re considering are controversial, how can we avoid being paralyzed by differences of opinion on our boards? We must view the varied political views of our board members as an asset rather than allowing them to constrain our critical role in public policy advocacy.
Imagine a social service administrator and a small-business owner debating minimum wage policy. Might they have different points of view? Indeed. If they determine that they will only promote a change in minimum wage policy if they can find points of agreement in their personal views, might they get stuck and say nothing? Very likely. Now imagine that social service administrator and business owner being joined by a social work student, an heir of a family fortune, the local police chief, a Republican legislator, and the executive director of a neighborhood community center. Is this a board that you recognize? Could this be the board of your nonprofit? In many organizations and communities, this kind of variety of thought is successfully governing the organizations that address our community’s most critical needs. But, what do we do when members of such a board (predictably) disagree on public policy issues? Often, we allow disagreement to define our organization as silent on critical issues. Can we really justify a job training organization whose diverse board disagrees on minimum wage policy staying quiet on the very issue that may move their organization’s participants out of poverty? Our sector’s challenge is to ensure that board disagreement not put an end to critical discussions nor constrain our proper role in public policy. Rather, we must channel this variety of thought into the asset that it is, and use it to support rich and constructive discussions designed to advance our mission by enabling our role in public policy.
The board of directors of The Family Partnership, a Minneapolis-based human service organization, has found a way to do just that. The list above resembles the makeup of their board—banker, lawyer, marketing professional, professor, family advocate, foundation staff, social worker, teacher, and community development director—all of whom care deeply about families and children, and have myriad assets to contribute to the success of the organization, which has served Minneapolis for over a century. If they are discussing policy and politics at a cocktail party, do we expect them to agree on everything? Of course not. Yet this organization has managed to make use of its diverse views to support taking on some of the state’s most controversial issues, all in support of the mission. The Family Partnership has long advocated for an array of policies designed to improve the lives of the communities they serve. Children’s mental health, violence prevention, crisis nurseries, tax credits for low-income families, and affordable housing are among the issues the organization has advocated for in recent years. Policy discussions of these issues, which are complex but not necessarily highly controversial, often occur in the context of available public resources. The amount of money available for affordable housing or crisis nurseries is inextricably linked to the reality that programs are funded by choices made within a defined pool of resources—in this case, the state’s revenues. If the state’s revenues are the big-picture context in which spending for critical public programs is made, doesn’t it make sense that the related advocacy issue would be tax policy, and, potentially, revenue-raising to support worthy programs? Yet too many organizations stop short of involvement in this issue as it can controversial among board members.
Tax policy, immigration, gun laws, GLBT rights—these are examples of issues that can create great divides in communities and are at the forefront of political polarization in our nation. Yet they are all issues tackled by The Family Partnership following thoughtful, robust board discussions that did not require a shared starting point of its members. Moving from the starting point of disparate individual views to a clear and appropriate organizational position requires defining the usefulness—the asset—of the diversity of opinion. The organizational asset to be celebrated is that the organization’s board members reflect the real views of the diverse community that is the organization’s operating environment. Understanding this helps us to consider organizational positions and strategy within our community context. But then what? Do we take a vote, and the bankers and business people line up against the social workers and teachers, and we replace our governance responsibility with a crude replication of democracy? No. Rather, we must acknowledge that our mandate is to establish one voice based on the mission of the organization whose board we are governing, and to use our varied perspectives to inform the logical view that makes sense for the organization.
Three basic steps can transform an organization’s potentially difficult policy discussions, where diverse views may constrain action, to a productive discussion that uses the board’s assets to unleash the potential for public policy engagement.
Step 1: Articulate the value of diverse views. We must explicitly state that diverse views are welcome and valued. We must be clear with the board, staff, and community stakeholders that we mean this. We must know and be able to share why we hold this value and how we use this asset to strengthen our organization. Diverse views help us understand the richness of the community in which we operate, but no one view in a range of views has the power to define our organizational agenda. The Family Partnership’s deliberations on immigration policy put this value into a picture, showing the community of various voices, with the organization in the middle. Like this, board members could see themselves and their point of view in a visual that also illustrated the organization’s mission as being the central focus of the conversation. It did not allow any particular view or interest to become the view of the organization but rather indicated each view’s proper place in relation to the organization’s mission, history, and role in the community. A visual like this allows us to show individual board members that we value their perspectives and expect members, as a group, to focus on the proper role and point of view of the organization.
Step 2: Ensure skillful facilitation of complex discussions. Discussions of policy and politics are notoriously rife with speculation and conjecture, and often feel personal. These can be among the most difficult of conversations for boards. Ensuring a productive, respectful, outcome-oriented discussion requires skillful, neutral facilitation. Of primary importance to a complex policy discussion is to maintain a laser focus on governance and mission. Straying from this makes it more likely to become a debate, but staying focused makes it less personal and more likely to bring everyone to a place of understanding (if not agreement) about the sensibility of the organization’s policy position. A skillful facilitator will ensure that the needs of individual board members be sufficiently met for all to engage in a productive discussion. That may mean outside voices are necessary, or that research presenting different points of view be distributed before the discussion. Most certainly it means the facilitator must not be viewed as pushing an agenda or steering the discussion toward a particular outcome. In order to avoid the squelch of dissenting individual voices, the process must be as carefully crafted and implemented as policy itself. And when the process isn’t working, willingness to change course is critical. Faced with urgency around a question related to gun laws, The Family Partnership initiated a board discussion that didn’t fully take into account the complexity of the issue and the wide range of concern about the organization’s involvement. A pause and reset to begin the discussion again—in a new environment, with additional information and a different process—was critical to eventually arriving at a position that made sense for the organization’s mission and role in the community.
Step 3: Dispense with the notion that full consensus of community support is necessary for every organization. Our organizations are constantly in the business of risk management—very little that we do is without some risk, including human resources, financial management, public relations, and the security of our buildings. We navigate these areas of risk with acumen every day, yet we allow ourselves the comfort of hiding behind an “it’s too risky because someone might disagree with us” mantra that keeps us from engaging in public policy. Sure, broad consensus support is very comfortable. There is risk when a board member is the dissenting view on whether an organization should be involved in a public policy issue or not. We would never choose to part ways with a funder. We don’t care to be considered the opposition to powerful and popular constituencies in our communities. Yet, aren’t we more likely to attract the most appropriate supporters and garner the most respect in the boardroom and throughout the community if people understand what we stand for and why? Taking clear positions may risk the full consensus support your organization has enjoyed, yet it has potential to attract a net positive in new supporters who appreciate the clarity of what you stand for. At The Family Partnership, taking a lead role on GLBT policy meant that some people who may have thought the organization was more traditionally focused in its definition of family might have quietly left their role in the organization—whether staff, board member, volunteer, or donor. But the reputation for leadership and strong convictions among the GLBT community and its supporters had the potential to soar. The clarification of values that occurs when an organization takes public positions on policy issues may lead to a small ripple among some of those who are close to the organization. But remember, diverse members of your board were attracted to your organization for a reason—the mission and your good work in the community. This will not change.
By following these three basic steps, we can transform our organizational conversations on public policy issues. We need and should attract varied points of view to our boards as a strategy to support our mission and governance. But our organization’s relationship to these diverse views must shift from what is often perceived as a barrier to being universally understood as an organizational asset. It is time we acknowledge that limiting our policy engagement to less controversial issues may feel comfortable and is often easier than engaging in complex policy discussions among board members with diverse views, but it is not the right approach to serving our communities. History shows that robust nonprofit involvement in advocacy on a range of issues including the significant, controversial, defining ones of the day, is essential. The critical nature of our nation’s current policy debates makes clear that boards of directors should find ways to rise to the occasion and actively explore ways to join the conversation, not sit at the sidelines. Our sector’s unique knowledge and the voices of our organizations are needed. Today is the opportunity to be part of the solution.
Susie Brown is public policy director for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.