Here is an amazing little insight from one of my favorite writers and leaders in the nonprofit sector, Jan Masaoka, CEO of the California Association of Nonprofits, and the founder of Blue Avocado – one of the very best blog/website for nonprofit managers.
“When the first shelters for battered women were being built in the 1970s, it was not against the law to hit your wife. Some shelters said, ‘We don’t want to be involved with politics.’ But how could shelters separate helping women in the shelter from helping them in their homes? And who would be the most effective advocates? Board members, of course! Board members had contacts with the police and knew the city council members.
“Some of them were financial supporters of various elected officials. They could partner with the police and had the influence and civic savvy to change the laws. In 50 years, the laws we are working to get changed today will seem just as obvious as the right thing to do as the laws against domestic abuse seem to us today. And board members are the great, connected, unrecognized power through which our communities leverage power. Why wouldn’t we use it?”
Jan’s statement comes from an exciting and important campaign that launched late last year called Stand for Your Mission.
Stand for Your Mission calls on nonprofit decision-makers to stand for the organizations they believe in by actively representing their missions and values, and creating public will for important policy changes.
A broad coalition of national organizations with regional and local ties have come together to mount this collaborative effort. Among them: the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers (on whose board I sit) as well as the National Council of Nonprofits, BoardSource, Alliance for Justice and more.
The goal is to “unleash the full potential of nonprofits to advance their missions by engaging board leaders more directly in the advocacy work of their organizations.”
Frankly, I’ve always felt that if the board isn’t talking about the effects and impact of public policy (or lack thereof) on the very cause that your organization is centered on – then you are leaving a lot of influence on the table.
Years ago, during my days working in the arts as we were working to save funding for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, I suggested that every arts organization create a standing committee of its board of directors that focused exclusively on advocacy. I felt this could accomplish two goals. First, you would have dedicated people who are volunteer leaders (not staff) within an organization to be the “foot soldiers” for organizing when needed. Second, you would have a regular reporting out – at the board level – about the public policy issues impacting the organization and the field.
At my organization, we have a Leadership and Policy Committee of the board that includes current trustees and members at large. You might think we must then be very proactive advocates with elected officials, highly regulated by government or reliant on government funds in some way. We aren’t any of those things.
What we are is interested in building relationships with policymakers on an ongoing, long-term basis, staying current on legislation that affects the field, and understanding what bigger trends or issues may be at play. The committee meets maybe three times a year but is in place as related policy issues come up. And, at every board meeting the committee co-chair provides an update and will lead a discussion on a specific topic if warranted.
Among the things I love about the Stand for Your Mission campaign are the tools they provide to help organizations bring the concept to life. There are a number of very practical suggestions and tools specific to nonprofit CEOs, nonprofit board members, and funders. From a guide to “Starting a Conversation in Your Boardroom,” to very clear and direct actions that can be taken at every stage – whether just starting out, building, accelerating, or connecting – there are a variety of resources all available on the standforyourmission.org website.
The Importance of Investing in Advocacy
There are also wonderful stories…how the San Diego Youth Symphony launched a board-driven strategy to get music education back into schools; and how a YWCA board in Washington State focused on mental and public health systems and were able to impact housing tax credit allocations among others.
As the Stand for Your Mission campaign makes clear, board leadership is not just about checks and balances. To truly be effective, trustees should also be powerful champions for the mission of the organization for which they have pledged the duties of care, loyalty and obedience.
So why not ask your trustees…what do you stand up for? And then help them to stand strong for your mission.
Nina Stack is President of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, the statewide association of more than 120 funding organizations working in New Jersey. She also serves as a Board Member of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, a 34-member network serving more than 4,000 foundations, corporations and other donors across the country. Nina is a regular contributor to the Dodge Blog.
The image above is from the Stand for Your Mission Tools and Resources page.