BoardSource encourages all nonprofit board members to advocate for their organization's mission. The following success story comes to us from Jewish Family Services of San Diego (JFSS).
Step One: Persuade the Board to Adopt Advocacy as a Priority
JFSS is a multi-service nonprofit with a budget of $17 million and a mission to empower people of all ages and faiths to reach their goals and build better lives. In 2013, its new CEO, Michael Hopkins, was concerned by its growing proliferation of programs.
“We had lost our sense of mission. We followed the money rather than impact,” he said. “It was impossible for us to talk about so many programs with any sense of coherency. We were an orchestra playing 50 instruments, with no clear sense of what kind of music we wanted to play.”
Over the next year, Michael and his staff had multiple conversations about raising JFSS’ visibility in the community and set a goal of deepening impact in a few key areas including hunger and workforce development. JFSS already played a leadership role in convening the Hunger Network that distributed food to the military and was interested in creating systemic solutions.
“We began to ask the question why were people falling into the river in the first place, rather than how many and for how long can we keep pulling them out,” Michael said.
Michael’s next task was to strengthen JFSS’ relationships with local elected officials. He also began searching for a model to guide the possible expansion of its advocacy. He met with some peers in Los Angeles and San Francisco to learn more about how their robust advocacy programs were structured.
Michael also knew he needed to engage his board early — he needed time to first educate and then motivate the members to approve the resources needed to support JFSS’ growing advocacy presence. His efforts were aided by his ability to attract a new board member who would go on to become the chair and champion board advocacy.
In the early years, the conversations at the board level were basic and focused on understanding the legal rules. But after several months of education, the vast majority of the board was supportive of, and even excited by, the proposed advocacy work. The members finally understood that high-impact organizations do both service and advocacy. This early education process paved the way for staff to engage the board in a strategic planning process with advocacy as one of the key strategies.
Today, JFSS feels secure about the evolution of its advocacy work because it took the time to establish a solid foundation of understanding.
“It really reflects that when people join the board, they opt into the culture of the organization,” said Shana Hazan, JFSS’ Chief Philanthropy Officer (CPO). “Our members tend to be progressive and the larger policy issues reflect that.”
Step Two: Solidify Support by Demonstrating Impact
Today, advocacy is integrated across the organization and is a deeply ingrained part of the JFSS culture. A full time public affairs manager staffs the public affairs committee and reports to the CPO. More broadly, all senior staff are considered to be part of the team.
The public affairs committee of the board meets six times a year and reports to the board twice a year. Every spring, the board approves the legislative and policy agenda (with specific bill and budget requests), based on the recommendation of the public affairs committee. Board members are also invited to join staff, the CEO, and committee members for an annual advocacy day at the state capital in May. In the fall, members receive an update on the status of the legislative agenda, along with a summary of how various public agency budget appropriations improve or detract from JFSS’ programs.
Today, JFSS’ advocacy work has significantly strengthened the organization in very tangible ways. In 2016, JFSS was named nonprofit of the year for San Diego County, and since making the decision in 2014 to prioritize policy work, JFSS has successfully secured substantially more than $1 million in public grants.
“Advocacy is a significant part of any kind of nonprofit PR strategy,” Michael said. “It has helped strengthen our brand tremendously, and frankly, it’s more cost effective than hiring a PR firm.”
Step Three: Sustain Support Through a Strategic Approach
Given its limited advocacy resources, JFSS is strategic about where it spends its time. “One of the things that has allowed us to be successful is that we aren’t trying to do everything,” Shana said. “We identify a few issues we are best positioned on, and in everything we do, impact is our driver.”
Rather than “getting involved in big broad campaigns that may not actually move the needle but make people feel good,” staff focuses on influencing relevant legislation and meeting with elected and administrative officials to educate them on JFSS’ policy priorities and agenda. Its government relations work includes courting candidates and getting on their radar before they get into office. Finally, JFSS prioritizes civically engaging the Jewish community with candidates’ forums and a Jewish advocacy fellowship program to train cohorts of next generation leaders.
The final factor to JFSS’ success has been its proactive mindset. The staff has identified the ability to engage directly with its clients in advocacy work as a next level priority, which requires hiring another staff person with a very different skill set.
When he thinks about future advocacy efforts, Michael is optimistic about the possibilities, “Our job as staff is to help make the case to the board that advocacy drives impact, and show the members the evidence, and hopefully the resources will follow. But it takes intention and the ability to be patient and follow a process.”