This post is one in a series written by leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place on November 9 & 10 in New Orleans. We invite you to join us.
Let’s face it. Getting boards on board with advocacy is not for the faint of heart. As a long time nonprofit lawyer turned strategist, I’ve experienced firsthand how barriers to nonprofit engagement in advocacy can frustrate mission fulfillment and board engagement. For starters, there are overly complex tax laws to educate your board on. Then there’s the critical need for establishing context, namely helping the board understand how advocacy outcomes will advance mission fulfillment. Either can be a sufficient enough challenge if staff is uneducated on policy matters and/or overloaded with other work. As a result, advocacy often gets put on the back burner against competing priorities.
At my last job, a state membership association, we spent significant time addressing reputational risks from engaging in advocacy. It reflected the more conservative organizational culture and background of board members who were foundation CEOs or senior staff. With some additional education that included bringing in outside experts and important stakeholders, we were able to convert most of the skeptics to supporters. It required persistence, shared leadership, and mutual trust between the CEO and board chair. There was also an organizing strategy that involved identifying and engaging board champions who could catalyze deeper support among their peers. And, of course, all this required considerable staff time.
For many boards that can get past the first set of challenges, a lack of financial resources can become the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. According to the Aspen Institute SNAP survey, a lack of financial resources is the number one deterrent to nonprofits engaging in advocacy. The good news is that this barrier is one where boards have the most to contribute to the solution. As stewards of the organization with fiduciary responsibilities, board members are correct to assert their role as risk managers and ensure adequate resources exist before an organization takes on advocacy in a significant way. They are also tasked with asking whether advocacy programs are sufficiently aligned with mission and sustainable in the long term or represent mission creep and a misallocation of resources. And, of course, they help raise funds by leveraging their networks and giving individually to support the advocacy work.
Nonprofits with boards that understand and embrace advocacy have a tremendous advantage over nonprofits whose board lacks any advocacy bench strength. It’s the role of the board to give approval and empower staff to make important decisions around policy agendas and to weigh in on potentially critical policy issues that impact the organization’s constituents. Without this approval, playing any kind of policy role becomes diluted at best.
According to the Aspen Institute SNAP Survey, the cumulative effect of the barriers we’ve created is that nonprofit participation in policy and advocacy is limited and intermittent. As a former environmental advocate, this collective aversion to advocacy was and still is jarring because of the possibilities advocacy holds for true mission fulfillment and impact on a broader scale possible than service alone.
What’s missing is what I’ve termed an AdvocacyForward™ path — a path to sustained motivation in the form of a new nonprofit business model that connects advocacy squarely to mission by identifying the key organizational functions that need to be aligned and optimized to make advocacy a core management priority. It’s a path that supports both individual leadership and organizational development and recognizes that if we are going to succeed in sustaining advocacy as a strategy that is embraced and recognized, we need to establish shared understanding across the organization and develop a culture that supports it. Then we can slowly begin to set our strategies and align with mission, ensuring there are sustainable resources and a pathway forward for accountability and future growth and development. I look forward to telling you more about this path at BLF.