Treehouse was the winner of the 2018 Stand for Your Mission Award for successfully advancing its mission through establishing advocacy as an expectation for engaged and effective board leadership. In this post, we learn how the organization continues to achieve its goals through advocacy.
BoardSource is now accepting applications for the 2019 award. Apply now and tell us your advocacy success story.
Last year, Seattle-based Treehouse was honored to receive the 2018 Stand for Your Mission Award recognizing our longstanding efforts to engage our board in advocating for our mission of giving foster kids a childhood and a future. Indeed, advocacy has been a key strategy in working toward our five-year strategic goal of high school graduation equity for youth in foster care.
For many years, Treehouse took a traditional social service approach to achieving its mission. But with years of experience providing effective direct services that addressed significant gaps in both the child welfare and education systems, our organization sometimes felt like it was rolling a rock up a hill when working with our state agency partners.
We had countless examples of systems that did not support the educational needs of kids in foster care — agencies that did not align, coordinate, share data, or partner effectively across systems. In many cases, there were no laws in place to create the conditions for children and youth in foster care to succeed in school. The systemic challenges reduced the power of — and in many cases served as a significant barrier to — our direct service work.
Our CEO Janis Avery realized that because of these issues, we could work smart, long, and hard and still fail to fulfill our mission. Advocacy was required to persuade elected officials, agency leaders, and practitioners that there was a better way for foster care and school districts to function and collaborate so that children and youth could experience educational and life outcomes equivalent to their peers.
When we first waded into advocacy, Janis led the way, identifying barriers and needs that could be addressed through legislation, as well as advocating with state agency leaders for practice change or providing needed input on administrative rules. She represented our organization at child welfare coalition meetings at which we would adopt a shared legislative agenda each year; she also went to our state capitol to testify on legislation or advocate with legislators.
If we had a law we wanted passed, Janis would reach out to the board and a handful of key supporters and ask them to call or email their elected officials. As we experienced small wins, we began to realize that they were the tip of the iceberg, and that Treehouse had the potential to be a critical statewide voice for youth in foster care.
To that end, staff worked with board leadership to form a policy and advocacy committee to lead the board in setting and achieving our advocacy goals. Over the years, the committee chairs have partnered with staff to provide training to the full board on legislative advocacy activities and how to advocate in person and via phone, email, and social media. This includes providing board members talking points, background information, and opportunities to practice their ‘pitch’ in board meetings, as well as providing them with template emails, Facebook posts, and tweets they can customize and send directly to their elected officials. We have now evolved to setting an annual goal related to board participation in advocacy, with individual board members setting individual advocacy-related goals alongside their personal fundraising goals.
There are so many ways for board members to participate in advocating for your mission. For us, our staff and board have organized trips to the state capitol during the legislative session for board members to meet with lawmakers. Board members also participate in an annual Youth Advocacy Day, led by our partners at The Mockingbird Society, in which they accompany youth to advocate on issues the youth themselves have identified to improve the foster care system.
This January, we are going a step further with a two-hour Advocacy Boot Camp Happy Hour training outside of a regular board meeting to train our board, an advisory council of young professionals who support our work, and interested volunteers and donors around our 2019 legislative agenda and key advocacy strategies. In addition, board members will host a legislative breakfast event at the state capitol to ensure legislators are aware of our agenda to improve educational outcomes for foster youth.
When we started our work in advocacy, I don’t think we knew what was possible. We are so proud that Washington now has some of the most comprehensive laws supporting the educational success for children and youth in foster care, thanks in great part to Treehouse’s leadership — and our board members have played a key role. I hope you will consider all of the ways your influential board members can use their voices to advance your organization’s mission through advocacy.