This blog is republished from Leading Well, where last week Janet Levinger interviewed BoardSource Chief of Staff Judy Reckelhoff about advocacy and nonprofit boards.
Advocacy Is Essential to Fulfill Your Mission and Serve Your Communities
Today’s post is the third in a series about board members and nonprofits advocating for their missions and the people they serve. Board members must understand how public policy impacts their organizations, the importance of educating policy makers, and the need to include resources for advocacy in an organization’s budget. In this post, I interview Judy Reckelhoff, Chief of Staff for BoardSource. She describes why BoardSource has elevated advocacy and points to resources they provide to help nonprofits and board members.
In my last post, I shared an Advocacy Checklist compiled from interviews I did with many board members who have advocated on behalf of their organizations. In the first post of the series, I interview Sonya Campion, a founder of Stand for Your Mission.
Why did Board Source start focusing on advocacy?
It started six or seven years ago. We were hearing more and more from sector leaders that board members did not understand what advocacy was. They thought it was illegal for their organization to engage in advocacy. This lack of knowledge was inhibiting nonprofit organizations and the sector more broadly to interact with policy makers as they contemplated important policy and funding decisions. Without advocacy from nonprofit leaders, policy makers were making decisions without all the information they needed.
At BoardSource, we realized that we could drive change in board member understanding. We needed to make it clear not only that nonprofit organizations can advocate but also that they should be advocating. Government officials make decisions that impact the people an organization is serving and their ability to access services as well as the organization itself.
What were board members most afraid of?
Essentially that advocacy was illegal, that they were going to get in trouble. They were afraid they would lose their 501c3 status. We saw a lot of anxiety around where the line really is because there is absolutely a line. Nonprofits cannot support or oppose political candidates. And there are restrictions and limitations depending on how your organization is created around supporting or opposing specific legislation. We have resources on our Stand for Your Mission website that outline what can and cannot be done.
How did you develop the Stand Your Mission campaign?
We worked with many partners including the Alliance for Justice, the National Council of Nonprofits, the United Philanthropy Forum, and the Campion Foundation to develop the Stand Your Mission campaign.
What does the Campaign consist of?
The campaign challenges all nonprofit leaders to stand up for their organization’s mission. We provide resources to facilitate their ability to do so effectively.
For example, there is a Discussion Guide that helps board members understand why advocacy matters and how they can engage. What can individual board members do? Could they help open doors? Could they help build relationships?
We also focus more broadly on the role of the board and why advocacy is important in a broader context. For example, we focused on the need to allocate resources for the organization to engage in advocacy and the need to understand the impact of public policy on the people they serve when setting strategy.
We also have some great case studies on our web site under Advocacy in Action. These stories describe how organizations have gotten boards to engage and how advocacy has helped move their mission forward.
Approving the budget is a big part of the board’s role. Can you talk about the connection between advocacy and budgets?
There are a couple aspects to this. First, it is essential to understand if your organization has government grants. This important funding can be cut off. So, you have to advocate with policy makers to make sure they understand how their decisions can impact your organization and the people you serve.
Second is to consider whether there is funding in your organization’s budget for advocacy. Often staff do advocacy anyway even though the board has not put resources behind it. Are your staff members going to try to advocate within the existing budget, scraping by with the resources they have? Or are they just not doing any advocacy at all? Perhaps you need to think about restructuring the budget to allow a staff position focused on advocacy? What would that look like? The board needs to understand what investments need to be made – whether that’s staffing or other investments – to enable the organization to enact an effective advocacy strategy.
Do you have advice on who should decide what issues to advocate for?
It depends on the organization. We recommend that as organizations become more engaged with public policy, they bring on board members who understand that public policy is a strategy for impact, who are well-positioned to support those efforts, and who can guide the organization’s advocacy strategy. Board members should also provide guidance around when the CEO is empowered to advocate and when the board or board chair should be consulted before taking a stand, which could include issues that may be controversial.
You said that as organizations become more involved with policy, they should have board members who are supportive. How do you make this happen?
Have very clear expectations about the role of the board and how you want them to engage. This needs to carry through with onboarding. Board members must know how your organization approaches advocacy. When prospecting for board candidates, be clear about how they are expected to engage. You should have a board member job description and a statement of commitment that helps them understand the role they are taking on.
When you are prospecting and onboarding, it is also important that board members know what governmental policies or funding streams impact your organization. They should know that the organization builds relationships with policy makers and advocates because they want the people who make decisions to understand the impact of those decisions.
If board members are going to reach out to policy makers, staff needs to connect the dots and clearly show how different policies or funding affect the organization. Staff need to provide concrete information about impact and help board members find language that they feel comfortable with. Board members need to speak from their hearts about the importance of their mission.
How did Board Source integrate Advocacy into the broader information you provide to boards?
We have embedded the expectation for the board’s role in advocacy throughout all resources we provide. Most importantly, we incorporated this expectation into the Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards. “Ten Basics” is widely considered to be the definitive resource on nonprofit board roles and responsibilities and has sold more than 300,000 copies worldwide since it was first released in 1988. Expanding the expectations for boards to include advocacy in this seminal publication is putting a stake in the ground.
In addition, we incorporate expectations around advocacy into our board self-assessment tool. The assessment lays the foundation for setting board development priorities and motivating board members — individually and collectively — to strengthen the full board’s governance performance and practices. It establishes a common understanding of board roles and responsibilities and measures board performance against these recognized roles and responsibilities, which now explicitly includes ambassadorship and advocacy.
By updating these key resources, we are saying that advocacy is too important to the success of our missions to be considered something “extra” or “nice to do.” It’s absolutely essential to the work of our organizations and our ability to fulfill our missions and serve our communities.
What are the areas where board members can be most effective as advocates personally? In what ways are board members most impactful?
Two things: They can help open doors and they can help educate policy makers. Board members might be well connected in the community or at the national or state level. They might be able to get a conversation that a staff person cannot. And because they are volunteers, policy makers are more likely to listen to them. Staff are well-versed in the details of public policy decisions, which is important. But it’s powerful to have a volunteer board member take the time to speak with an elected official as an unpaid, volunteer citizen.
What resources are available to help board members be advocates?
The Stand for Your Mission campaign has links to a variety of resources that may be helpful.
About Janet Levinger
After years of seeing mistakes repeated and best practices lost, Janet Levinger created LeadingWell to shares strategies and stories of leaders from around the world who want to improve nonprofit boards and governance. To receive posts, enter your email on the site and click on Follow. Or follow her on LinkedIn.
Janet is a Social Impact Leader in the Seattle area. She devotes her time, advocacy, and philanthropy to create systemic and structural changes in the areas of education, children and families, free and fair democratic processes, and reproductive rights.
Over the past 25 years, Janet has served on 16 boards and chaired five of them. She currently serves on the boards of Seattle Foundation and the University of Washington College of Education. She is fund development co-chair for Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and Hawaiian Islands and serves on committees for the Progress Alliance of Washington, Women Donors Network, and Social Venture Partners International.
Janet worked in high tech for 16 years. She has experience in marketing/communications, fundraising, board governance, and training and development. She has a BA in English with honors from Brown University.