Black Lives Matter. The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery have opened the door for real change. None of us can individually break down the structural and institutional barriers in our country. But we all can and must use the power and influence we do have to create change. As a board member, you can remove barriers in your organization and in your sector.
One way to do this is to use your voice to influence public policy and funding. Recent events amplify the need for all of us to speak up now and continuously — not just when we want something. It does not matter whether your organization feeds, houses, educates, heals, trains, counsels, or motivates people. When you see a disproportionate number of black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people requiring services or assistance, you are seeing the results of structural and institutional barriers. You must speak up.
Today I am starting a series about board members advocating for the organizations they govern and the people those organizations serve. I begin the series with an interview of Sonya Campion, President of the Campion Advocacy Fund and Trustee of the Campion Foundation. She is also a founder of the Stand for Your Mission campaign.
Why are you focused on board advocacy?
Fundamentally, the reason I am so focused on board advocacy is not to lessen other players, but because I continually see nonprofits step up only when something is at risk or they need something from the public sector. And then the rock Sisyphus is pushing up the hill falls down again. And again. We will never build a sustainable, resilient advocacy muscle in the nonprofit sector if board members do not understand its importance, invest in capacity, and personally “Stand up for your Mission.”
How did you get involved with advocacy?
Working in the nonprofit sector for over 35 years, I started to see a pattern: some of the most effective organizations were those that confidently stepped out in the world and spoke up for their mission using everyone in the organization. Years later, when Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits came out, they identified advocacy and shared leadership as qualities of the most impactful organizations.
I also got involved through our foundation. Preserving wilderness areas is one of our priorities. Since that involves federal legislation, it also requires active, vigilant advocacy. Another priority is homelessness. Early on, we learned how much homelessness is the direct result of government policy. We saw that there is an intricate co-dependent relationship between government and nonprofit service providers. For example, in Issaquah Washington, a suburb of Seattle, the mayor was firm that there would not be any new development unless it included affordable housing and community space. And that is why the YWCA got land valued at over $8 million near the transit center to build their Family Village which integrates affordable housing and services.
We also believe that homelessness will end when the public demands it. But quite frankly, it is a hard issue to understand. Board members are a natural source of leadership to help build public will to end homelessness.
How did you shift to focus on board members doing advocacy?
While I was still at the Collins Group, I saw the disconnect with board members around understanding that public policy was a key part of their organization’s survival. I worked on a large capital campaign that received a huge amount from a local levy. When some prominent board members took a public stand against the levy, I realized that they did not know that the organization had gotten money from it. I called the ED who told me that they did not allow politics in the board room. I also went back and looked at the campaign report that I had provided each month. I was part of the problem. When we presented to the board, we had 15 line-items under private money – corporate, major donor, foundation, etc. But even though more than half of the funding was public money, we only had one line-item for public money. We never talked about public money to the board. The staff took care of it.
Another nonprofit I worked with had a CEO who got very involved in the board advocacy effort. She was afraid that a board member would be at a hearing about a policy that impacted their organization and would not know the connection. Every year when she presented her budget, she had pie charts that listed all the different public funds. She talked about how they were secured and how they could go away. She built it into the governance expectations of the board.
A parallel story is from an elected city official. He had gone out on a limb for some legislation that supported several nonprofits in the area. He ran into some board members of one of those nonprofits in the neighborhood. They did not know what he had done. He said it made him less enthusiastic for the organization if the people at the top did not realize the huge investment the City was making in their organization.
The bottom line is that we are leaving a lot of untapped leadership on the table when we need every voice possible speaking up for our missions. Especially now. With over 32% of nonprofit income coming from the public sector, our communities will be severely impacted with upcoming budget cuts. We cannot just sit back and see how it all sorts out, our missions deserve more.
Keeping board members informed is an important first step, how do you go further?
It is not easy. When we started working with homelessness, we would go down to Olympia to advocate. I looked around to see who was there. It was all staff and paid lobbyists. No board members.
We did a scan around the State and conservatively estimated that there were about 500 organizations focused on housing and homelessness. That means 10,000 board members! How do we get these board members to advocate for policy and funding that impacted housing and related services? The goal is to make our agenda a priority for elected officials by showing how many people — volunteers, constituents — felt this was important. The only way we can sustain policy wins is to have a committed community standing up for our missions. Board members are already committed; they just need to be mobilized. You have to build advocacy into the blood stream of an organization. Staff and board members need to see advocacy as an essential function of the organization’s mission.
So, we launched the Board Advocacy Campaign and started training nonprofits in the homelessness and affordable housing sphere. Quite frankly, it was not very successful. I made a mistake that I would never have made in launching a capital campaign: I did not get buy in to the vision of making our issues a political priority in WA State. So every possible roadblock was thrown our way: Executive Directors told us their boards were oversubscribed in other duties, board members were afraid advocacy was illegal, and activists thought we were supplanting their expertise with “elite” community members. We were going to drop it. Then we met Anne Wallestad, the dynamic CEO of BoardSource. She was passionate about boards doing more than just showing up and approving the minutes. She knew BoardSource could be more than just a publishing house. They publish the standards. They have data. They are a great resource. But they could be doing more. She said, “We have to run with this. We have to make this part of every board ecosystem.” It became a national campaign.
What did BoardSource do?
BoardSource incorporated advocacy into their seminal publication Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards. They were thoughtful about it. Instead of adding an 11th standard, they integrated it into three current responsibilities. They put it in the part “Determine Mission and Purposes and Advocate for Them.” They included it under “Ensure Adequate Financial Resources.” Finally, they included it under “Enhance the Organization’s Public Standing.”
I was impressed. They do not change those responsibilities lightly or often. They went further. They updated their training guidelines. They revised their materials. They measure and evaluate. They publicly said that the mission of a nonprofit is too important to sit on the side lines. It is urgent that we stand up.
How did the Board Advocacy Campaign become Stand for Your Mission?
At one point, we were trying to figure out how to rebrand the Board Advocacy Campaign for BoardSource. I was talking to this brilliant local communications guru, Bill Tolliver. I was giving him some background: In the US, the nonprofit sector is 10% of the workforce, with over 20 million board members and 63 million volunteers, yet we are not considered a formidable “force” with elected officials. And training in Governance is often one of the last things nonprofit leaders seek out, so they rely on the old standards of governance — oversight of budgets, hiring and firing the CEO, legal oversight, etc. — but the nonprofit sector has matured and “maintenance” governance is no longer enough.
And Bill replied, “Sounds like we don’t have time for people to just sit on a board anymore, they need to stand up for their mission.” And that is how it became Stand for Your Mission. Board members have power and influence. Policy makers need to hear from them. We need board members to use their voice for what their organizations need and what their clients need.
What role does a board play in advocacy?
Board members need to understand the role of advocacy and policy for their mission. I am on a board where over 53% of our budget comes from government sources. The board cannot ignore this part of the ledger if we are truly fiscally responsible for the organization. Boards can advocate – meet with elected officials to educate them on a topic. They can also thank elected officials. In addition, board members need to build capacity by funding advocacy in their organization’s budget. It is not just about getting board members to go to the state house or the city hall. The organization needs to have it in their bloodstream. And importantly, I have seen that board members who do go out and speak on behalf of their organizations come back more committed.
How do you get board members comfortable with advocating?
I am a fundraiser at heart. Asking for philanthropic donations or for public policy on behalf of your organization involve the same set of skills. You must center your mission and articulate why you care about it. If your heart is in the right place, you cannot make a mistake. Still, there is a lot of fear around meeting with elected officials.
In one example, board members were afraid of making a mistake and misrepresenting the organization. So, leadership brought in several politicians. They asked the panel, “How could we make a mistake? What would be the worst thing we could do?” The politicians did not hesitate. What they said was to make it personal. If you said to a mayor or city council person, “You have to do this because you live in this neighborhood.” Then you make it personal to them. The panel was good. Board members thought, “If that is the worst I could do, I’m okay. I would never make that mistake.”
Do you have an example where board members advocating worked?
One was with our US Senator, Maria Cantwell. Maria is a key leader on low-income housing tax credits which have created 400,000 to 500,000 units across the country. It is a key lever. We held an event for her. I recruited board leaders from housing and homelessness organizations to come. Several of the board members raised their hands and thanked her for her leadership. And she was really startled. She said after that she did not think anyone had noticed. But to have 10 people from strong local organizations all saying “we noticed” meant a lot. She was doing it because it was the right thing. She was not doing it for political capital.
We did the same thing with Patty Murray. We wanted her to see that this is a top priority in the community. We reached out to as many boards as possible around housing and homelessness and invited them to an event. Lots showed up including many prominent, high profile people. The Senator had already done a lot of work on youth homelessness. Now she saw that it was important to a broad spectrum of our community.
Do you have any advice that you would give to board members or volunteers who want to advocate on behalf of the organizations they support?
I would start by making sure board members understand the role policy and public funding play in the mission of their organizations and most importantly the consequences if it went away. Know the real impact – who would be left out, what lives would be impacted, and why does it matter to you personally?
Second, I would have board members thank people. Susan Howlett, a local consultant, does a lot of board fundraising training and one thing she does is have board members call a donor to thank them. This is something board members can also do for elected officials and policy makers.
Do you think it is better to meet in the district office personally or go down to the state house or city hall? What would you recommend?
If you want to elevate something to a higher level of priority, do it in a community meeting like a town hall or a fund raiser so the elected official can see that there are many people who care about it.
Going to the elected official’s office is also important. A city council member once told me that when you hear from even five to ten people on an issue, it gets their attention. Mass emails are less effective than hearing personally from a handful of people.
What sort of preparation should they have to speak to Elected Officials?
Board members should have a clear story from staff on how the policy is linked to or impacts their mission. A story is important. But then have staff available with numbers.
I know a key lesson is to build advocacy into the core of your organization, what else?
Strengthening the governance muscle of the nonprofit sector is one of the most urgent things we need to do right now. Civil Society is on the chopping block with the severe budget cuts underway and expected to get worse, especially at the local level in every community in the country. I serve on the board of Independent Sector, a national advocacy organization for the nonprofit sector. In national surveys we found that 78% believe government should collaborate with us, and 85% expect charities to advocate. I guess it comes down to the old saying, “If you aren’t at the table, you’ll soon be on the menu” and your donors cannot make up the difference.
As with everything, it all comes down to leadership, especially the CEO. Every good board is about the CEO. I remember one CEO who said she spent half her time managing her board. I asked if that was crisis management. She said, “No, it is leveraging. I want them out doing things in the community for our mission.”
Finally, as you note, it is important to build advocacy into the core of your organization. Ensure board members know how public policy and funding impact your organization and your clients so they can see it is essential to your mission. Build advocacy capacity into your budget. Bring board members to meet with elected officials – prepared with stories. Provide training and guardrails to ensure everyone knows the 501c3 lane of advocacy. And most of all, ground this effort into what it means to build a strong, representative, thriving Democracy. Every voice matters.
Resources: A great article about advocacy in action.