Today’s post is an inspiring story about an organization that came to see advocacy as part of the solution for its population. The staff person who shared the story outlines how the organization and the board evolved to embrace advocacy and describes a brave moment when they realized they had to put their population before personal issues. This staffer makes an impassioned call in these unprecedented times to bring advocacy up a notch and to take risks to support your population – even if you might fail.
This post is the fifth in a series about advocacy. In my last post, I interviewed elected officials about advocacy. In the previous post, Judy Reckelhoff, Chief of Staff for BoardSource, describes why they have elevated advocacy. In an earlier post, I shared an Advocacy Check List compiled from interviews I did with many board members. In the first post of the series, I interviewed Sonya Campion, a founder of Stand for Your Mission.
One Organization’s Evolution to Embracing Advocacy Big Time
As told by a nonprofit staff person somewhere in the USA
I am the development and communications officer. I lead the team that is everything external facing — except program. This includes advocacy. Our organization was founded in the 1970s by a group of community volunteers who saw a need with a specific population which they thought they could solve easily. The original founding group had an “aha” moment when they realized just how complex the situation really was. And then they made some crazy, brave decisions that launched us to where we are today.
Up until about 13 years ago, we did not do advocacy work. We got good contracts. We turned in our government reports. At that time, the budget was less than $1 million. Now it is just over $17 million, about two-thirds public contract and one-third philanthropy. For us, government contracts and policy are connected big time.
Key Elements: Effective ED, Supportive Board, Resources – and Bravery
What happened is we got a new ED. She looked around and said, “It is great to see that we are stable and doing good work. But I don’t think it’s enough.” Our ED is a vibrant, charismatic, fearless leader who understands that advocacy is part of our solution. She is so good that for a long time everybody stayed out of her way. This was her wheelhouse.
About seven years ago, we started transitioning from “we have a great ED who can influence people” to where we are today. First the board added resources so we could hire a part-time policy professional to help the ED. Then the board amended the by-laws and added a Public Affairs committee. Soon they realized that we needed to add more voices to the conversation beyond the ED. We hired a full-time policy director and then more staff. We have registered lobbyists. The transition went smoothly because we had a couple of strong advocates on the board who understood this work.
Now, the board is quite involved. Every year the Public Affairs committee builds our annual policy agenda that clearly lists our priorities at the city, county, state, and federal levels. The committee also addresses urgent issues that come up during the year. They have developed a decision-making matrix to ensure a thorough review when we need to respond quickly or to controversial issues. And we have brought elected officials to meetings and events so board members are used to interacting with them.
Having some victories has made it easy to keep the work going. Board members see that it works. We have been able to sustain and grow our public support from the state and the city. And our reputation has grown so sometimes the city will call us and ask us to take on a project.
Advocate for Funding and a More Just World
Our advocacy work focuses about 50-50 on two areas: One is maintaining current or discovering new public-based dollars for our work. And second is to help our population exist in a more just world. So, one day we might be knocking on the door of legislators at the state capital for funding. And the next day we might be working on a new law for the city. A lot of government contracts have organizations count specific outputs and use that to decide whether they will get more money. But the outputs that they want us to count are not actually our markers of success. Just getting money does not end the conversation. We need to look at good policy for our population.
Neutrality Is Not an Option If You Put Your Population First
We have encountered three critical moments since 2016. Before, we tried to be neutral. We did not openly identify with any party. It was not our role. But the arrival of Donald Trump to the White House changed that. If we believe in equity and if we believe in justice for our population, we cannot just sit back. We could no longer ignore the systemic reality that impacted our clients. We had to have a path for meaningful action. In many ways, the policy work we had been doing was centered on social justice and racial equity. But we never said those words nor held ourselves to that level of accountability. In a transformative way, the arrival of the Trump administration pushed us out of the advocacy closet.
The second critical point was when we conducted our first comprehensive donor survey to find out how they felt about our advocacy work. We asked them what they would like to hear about and what type of action requests they wanted to participate in. The board was worried that we would go too far on social justice and advocacy and that that would harm our donor and foundation relationships. Not only has that not been true, we have had new dollars to do advocacy work; our donors are unflinchingly onboard. We had a landslide of positive feedback: “Yes, I absolutely support your advocacy.” “I can’t wait to participate. What do you need me to do?” “I can testify at city hall.” “I care about your population. I want them to have just laws.” “I am in.”
The third critical point was around a law that would have aided our population. The law was poorly written. I read it. It was just bad. It was a seminal moment where we had to decide as an agency that even if we did not like the law or wished it looked different whether to take an official position. It was one of the most beautiful and most difficult moments for our board. Some board members personally and professionally were opposed. But there was one brave board member who said, “You have to ask yourself, as somebody who has made a commitment to leadership in this organization, does it matter how it impacts me? What matters is whether to support this on behalf of our population. I would rather defend standing up for our population than getting called out for not.” That was the first time that the board moved to “How do we think about this as leaders who represent a certain population?” It was scary. Board members were afraid we would get clobbered in the media. None of those fears came to be. And even the folks who did not love our decision respected that we made it and understood why we had to take the stand that we did. We were brave.
Now Is the Time to Go for that Crazy Opportunity
We are in a unique time. Government budgets will be tight. Philanthropists are being hit hard. For us, there is the reality that our organization cannot close because of the population we serve. We have to maintain our services. We have radically altered what we are doing on a daily basis. But we grew exponentially during the last crisis in 2007 to 2009. People needed us to grow. We expect that to happen again in a way that is both a huge responsibility and deeply humbling.
I try to look for opportunity. In this crazy time, all the rules are broken. Everything is up for grabs. It is okay to burn everything down because the world is melting. It is okay to try an amazing idea even if it might not go perfectly or might even fail. Do it now. Nobody is going to judge you for making a best-effort attempt at something new. We are all scared.
If I am going to be accountable to our mission, during this time, and in the years to come, I must have the bravery to do things that felt off the table until this moment. Taking our policy work up a notch is going to be asked of us to keep the place open and to keep services robust. There are going to be some moments when we are going to have to be brave. I look forward to that bravery.
Dynamic, supportive ED. You need a dynamic, supportive ED, capable of developing policy strategy as well as advocating themselves. But also, someone who realizes that advocacy takes more than one person.
Strong board leadership. You need strong board leadership and informed board members who understand what advocacy is allowed and how it impacts your organization. They have to rise to the occasion of making decisions on behalf of your population not themselves.
Patience. The transition will take time.
Resources: The board needs to ensure resources for advocacy staff and other expenses are built into the budget.
Public Affairs committee: You need a board Public Affairs committee that sets the agenda and has a process for approving urgent or controversial stands.
Engaged board members and donors: Having board members and donors who will write letters, meet with policy makers, open doors, and otherwise use their power and influence makes a huge difference.