A few weeks ago, my colleague, Kate von Richthofen, asked if your board is having the crucial conversation about sequestration and its impact on your nonprofit. This month, I ask you to think about the responsibility of your board members to do something more: Advocate for your nonprofit organization’s mission.
Patrick Lester recently wrote in The Nonprofit Quarterly, “The nonprofit sector is too vital to our democracy to remain silent on budget issues or any of the other major issues facing this nation.”
The sheer numbers generated by the nonprofit industry in the United States, the extent of its impact — both social and economic — makes Lester’s point crystal clear.
According to an Urban Institute brief summarizing The Nonprofit Almanac 2012, there were more than 2.3 million nonprofit organizations operating in 2010. Those organizations generated more than 9.2% of the wages and salaries paid in the United States and reported more than $2.71 trillion in total assets, $1.51 trillion in total revenue, and $1.45 trillion in total expenses. The revenue was generated accordingly:
- 22% from contributions, gifts, and government grants
- 73% from program service revenues, which include government fees and contracts
- 5% from "other" sources including dues, rental income, special event income, and gains or losses from goods sold
The important point I want to make here is that nonprofits make up 5.5% of the GDP of the United States, and many rely on some sort of government funding.
So why, during a time of fiscal insecurity, when federal and legislative debate is rampant and cuts are looming, does it appear that the voices of the leaders of the nonprofit sector — the 20 million nonprofit board members that serve this industry – are seemingly absent in this debate?
Lester attributes this lack of voice as the result of the following challenges:
1) Nonprofit board composition being increasingly more and more representative of wealthy donors and corporate representatives
2) Lack of resources to support dedicated staff that work solely on public policy
3) Cumbersome and consensus-driven decision-making processes within nonprofits that make it nearly impossible to be nimble enough to conduct the timely information processing and response needed for effective advocacy
It’s my belief that these challenges are not only surmountable, but finding solutions to them is imperative.
The nonprofit sector exists to enhance the social, economic, educational, cultural, and humanitarian components of our society. Nonprofits are beholden to their communities through their missions. The primary priority of a board member is to advance the mission of his or her nonprofit — to have duty of care, loyalty, and obedience to said mission. Advocacy is an essential component of mission impact. Even beyond the immediately obvious national discourse around federal funding, advocacy is essential to any nonprofit serving a cause. Policies and initiatives such as The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative, the Healthy Food Financing Initiative Act, and the immigration reform bill that will be introduced in Congress this month are just a few examples of policies that will directly affect the way tens of thousands of nonprofits in this nation do business. It will impact their strategies, their funding streams, their messages, and for some, their raison d’être.
The Campion Foundation in Washington State sees this connection. Campion has been supporting system-wide board advocacy as an essential long-term change strategy in ending homelessness through The Board Advocacy Project:
The Board Advocacy Project leverages the authority and persuasive power that nonprofit board members have as advocates, helping them reach the public funding and policy goals needed to end homelessness.
Board members are passionate, credible, and knowledgeable experts in their communities. To policy makers, board members are also constituents, campaign donors, volunteers, and community leaders. Their opinions matter, and their voices are influential. Along with a powerful grassroots base, effective communications, expert policy development, and strategic political action, we believe board members can provide critical support needed to make our vision—ending homelessness—a lasting reality.
Do you see the connection that The Board Advocacy Project sees? Do you think advocacy is a fundamental responsibility of your board leaders? If not, why? Are you making advocacy a component of healthy board dialogue and action? Are your board members championing your organization and doing everything it takes to execute on its mission? Can you build streamlined processes for decision-making so that board members can provide responses on policies that impact your nonprofit? Can you advocate for resources that would support personnel to monitor policy changes and reforms that are in the horizon and create a culture of advocacy within your organization? We would love to hear from you about what you think about advocacy and what you are doing.