It Changes Everything

When Board Members Use Their Voices

Today’s post is the second of a series on the importance of having board members advocate, that is, speak about how public policy and funding impacts the missions and clients of the organizations they support. In the first post, I interviewed Sonya Campion who helped found the Stand for Your Mission campaign.

For this post, I interviewed eight people who have done a lot of advocacy work as board members. These individuals have different day jobs and live all over the US. Most have advocated at all three levels of government: local, state, and national. They have gone to state capitals and DC to testify before committees or meet legislators; they have met elected officials in their district offices; and they have taken advantage of fund raisers and other events to speak up.

I asked these board members to share stories about times when they have advocated – including successful and unsuccessful efforts. I asked them for lessons learned from their experiences. I was struck by how similar their experiences and advice were.

One person sent me an Advocacy Checklist. I started with that and added ideas and stories from the others. I also indicate whether items are done by staff, board members, or both.

Sometimes I feel that public policy is almost a dirty word. But it is important. Improving public policy and funding to support your organization’s goals can have more impact than the great services your organization provides. Unless something is brought to the attention of elected officials, it won’t rise to the top of their list. Or it might not get attention if they hear from only one segment of society. But when they start hearing the same message from many groups, it is powerful. And it is also compelling when you put volunteers such as board members out there. It changes everything when you have people saying, “This is not about what I get paid to do. This is where I give my time and talent because I feel passionate about it.” As a board member, you have to use your voice to speak for those who have little or no voice   –Board Member in the US

How to Be a Board Advocate – a Checklist

1) Identify how public policy and funding impact your organization, your sector, and the clients you serve. As I shared in my last post, being transparent with board members is critical. (Staff role)

—“I would encourage every organization to look at the broader picture of public policy and how it affects them and their clients.

2) Train board, staff, and volunteers on your issue. Consider getting expert speakers who might be your own staff or others in the field. (Staff arranges, everyone attends)

—“You need to be up to speed on the issues and that’s where staff is helpful because they live this stuff.

3) Develop advocacy goals aligned with your mission. (Staff led with board input)

—“It is the staff’s job to come up with the overall goals of what we are doing, identify the key positions, identify where we have bandwidth and where we don’t. The board shouldn’t necessarily be driving the content of the work.

4) Join or convene coalitions of other groups with similar goals. Each organization can take some of the work. The coalition can also join forces to pay for research and training. (Staff led with board input)

—“We were the catalyst that brought together all the volunteer organizations and the health department and everyone and we formed this coalition in the state. We all took our piece of work. We did not do it all ourselves. But to further that goal, we brought everyone together. We all worked on it. And we had a common message and we went to the state capital and we got funding.

5) Develop a common message for the coalition. Many organizations giving the same message makes a stronger impact. (Staff of coalition organizations)

6) Adapt the common message for your organization. (Staff with board input)

—“Begin with a detailed document that includes your organization’s goals, information on who you serve, why your service is crucial, and how it will be impacted by improvements in policies or funding.

7) Create personal stories. Everyone should have a story that reflects their passion for the mission. Each person should introduce themselves, indicate whether they are in the elected official’s district, why the issue is important to them, and what they would like the elected official to do. It is compelling for a policy maker to hear that an individual is so enthusiastic about the work that they give time, talent, and wealth to further its cause. (Board members with staff input)

—“My advice would be that the congress person would like to hear about the impact on you personally. It is key to share stories about why it is important to you. I think that is really effective. Speaking from your heart.

8) Provide training on what to say and how to say it as well as background on where the elected official stands on the issue. Training can focus on body language as well as a clear message. Role playing is helpful. (Some staff led, training board and staff together)

—“Especially when you first start out, it is good to have some training on how to get your message across. It is good to have staff tell you how this person stands on the issue, so you go in prepared. If you walk into this room secure both in what you are going to say and where the give and take may go, you will be more successful.

9) Make appointments for visits. Meeting state representatives can be full of surprises so be prepared to make changes to your schedule. Do not be disappointed if you end up speaking to staff people — these can still be rewarding contacts. In-person meetings are generally 15 minutes, sometimes 30. (Staff usually schedule appointments which board and staff attend)

10) Meet ahead if a group is visiting or testifying together – to create an agenda and to coordinate stories. That way everyone knows what is going to be said and who is going to say it. (Board and staff together)

—“We developed an agenda – to introduce ourselves, to say why we were meeting, to tell him what we wanted, and to give him time to talk. They gave us talking points. But they were also clear that we did not have to be experts. That was really helpful. We just had to explain why this was important to us. As volunteers, we did not have to answer all the questions.

—“The most successful meetings usually include several people from the organization. The board members tell the story of why it is important. Staff supports with data.

“It is often useful for groups of two to four people to testify one after the other, repeating the same message but focusing on distinct aspects of the issue.

11) Be clear about your call to action. What do you want to happen because of the meeting or testimony? (Staff with board input)

12) Bring good data or information to leave behind that will help elected officials decide what to support and to make a case to their peers. Invite policy makers to contact you with questions and explore whether they would like to be invited to an event associated with your organization. (Staff and board together)

—“The day before we were to meet, a government agency in the field came out with a big report. It was 300 pages. One of our people had gone through the whole thing and written up a two-page summary. The people we met with were happy to have it as a tool that they could then read and speak about it. I thought it was really effective.

13) Consider the best venue for your cause. If you need to convince someone, then an office meeting is best because you can have a conversation, go back and forth. You will probably get more time and fewer interruptions if you meet in a district office. Even a meeting with a staff person can be effective. If you want to show that there is broad support for an issue, it is better in a public setting such as a committee hearing or a fundraiser – where you can bring many people who all show solidarity for your effort. (Board and staff)

—“Many years ago, I met with a legislator who opposed my issue. As we were having this conversation, it became clear that he was against it because he had a personal incident in his life that he thought would have been impacted negatively by my cause. I was able to show him that what I was advocating for would not have made a difference in his situation. He replied, “Oh, I have been thinking about this wrong.” Having a meeting where there was give and take allowed me to change his mind.

—“I don’t like testifying in front of a legislative committee. You are so limited in your time. People have already made up their minds. There is no Q&A. You go in and make your statement and then you go out. And then other people go in. I need to make a connection with somebody to really advocate.

—“If there are others with you in the testimony room, ask them to stand during your testimony. Or have all supporters wear t-shirts or hold signs, so committee members know how many people are in the room who support your point of view. If they can tell that there are 15 or 20 or 40 people or even just 6, it makes a difference.

14) Meet with people on all sides of the issue. Sometimes your representative will not agree with you. This can feel uncomfortable. But it is not the end of the world. Do not be discouraged. Consider that you elevated their knowledge of what is important in their districts. They might come around another time. (Staff makes appointments which board and staff attend)

—“It is really different when you meet with someone who does not agree with you. You have to be more careful to stick with the script and not talk about other things or get distracted. We met with one of our senators and he was not as friendly to us. It was a lot harder.

—“He said, ‘I knew there were different viewpoints in your community. But I had not heard this view from any of my constituents before. It is really good to hear this view from you.’”

15) Practice before testifying. When testifying before a committee, you only have minutes. Committee members want to know why it is important to you. Practice so you can speak, not read. (Board members prepare)

—“I practice my testimony. I have it written out in bullet points. Cause they don’t want you to read a statement. They want you to talk to them. I don’t trust myself to not go way off base once I get rolling so I try to have bullet points to keep me on track.

16) Send a thank you after the meeting to the elected official AND the staff person. Thank them for taking the time to hear from you – include a concise restatement of your issue. Thanking the staff person who helped set up the meeting is helpful the next time you want to meet with the legislator. (Board and staff)

One Comment

  1. Tim Schottman

    Great checklist! A very practical tool for a Board member starting to do advocacy. Who’s the artist? 🙂

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