Board Member Shares Lessons About Advocacy

In this post, an individual who both works in a nonprofit and has served on many boards shares their thoughts on the importance of advocacy, the role of board members in advocacy, and ways to make board members most effective.

This post is the sixth in a series about advocacy. In my last post, I shared an inspiring story about an organization that saw advocacy as part of the solution for its population. In the previous post, I interviewed elected officials to find out what they saw as effective. In an earlier post, Judy Reckelhoff, Chief of Staff for BoardSource, describes why they have elevated advocacy. In my second 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. 

Elected Officials Want to Hear from Nonprofit Organizations

As told by a Board Member somewhere in the USA

I have been involved in nonprofits both from the staff side and the board side for decades. I have been on 15 to 18 boards, sometimes two or three at one time. My role on boards tends to focus on advocacy and how that is a key part of what boards should do. I also provide training for boards on advocacy.

I learned good lessons about nonprofit advocacy from some elected officials themselves. First, many years ago, a congressman I knew told me that he never heard from nonprofit organizations. He said he found their input invaluable on policy around their issue areas, so he reached out to them. Second, many years later, I was a staff person for a large nonprofit. We had a tough relationship with the city. So, we sat down with the council member from our district and asked what would make the relationship better. She said, “I never want to be surprised. I don’t want to see something in the newspaper or hear about something from your neighbors. When an issue comes up, I want you to tell me about it first and explain your perspective.” We did just that and our relationship not only improved, but several times we got calls from her staff alerting us to issues we did not know about. Both situations reinforced – to me – the importance of building relationships with elected officials, of not surprising them, and of advocating proactively.

Staff Leads, Board Members Provide Input and Connections

With one of my first boards, I learned an important lesson about the distinct roles of board members and staff as an organization takes on advocacy. When we first started, I came with the expectation that I – as committee chair — would set the advocacy agenda. At the first meeting, I said, “Here are the key things that I think we should be talking about.” My staff lead politely but firmly provided an alternative list. I learned that board members need to step back and let the staff drive. It is not the board saying, “Here’s where we are going.” The staff should develop overall goals and identify key positions. The board should give input, make connections, and go on calls. The board should not develop the content of the work. At first it was a challenge to me as a board member because my paid job was advocacy. I had to make myself step back and not start dictating where we were going. I had to learn my role as a board member, not a staff person.

Board Training Is Essential

Another situation I learned a lot from was as chair of the board advocacy committee for a local nonprofit. Over time, we turned the committee into a robust machine to drive advocacy. But it was a slow start. Many board members did not understand what a nonprofit can do under tax law. We had to spend time educating the full board that it was perfectly okay to reach out to state legislators. We did trainings so that everyone felt comfortable with the law. We also had board members practice elevator speeches so they could talk confidently. We made advocacy training part of our annual retreat. Usually it was an hour mini session where we gave an overview of what is legal and provided talking points. Then we had an interactive portion where everyone practiced: Okay, you are at your son’s soccer game and you look next to you and it’s the mayor – go.

As I said, I was chair of the advocacy committee which included two staff people, three board members, and about ten community members who were passionate about our issue area. I would work with the staff to identify the goals for the upcoming meeting. We tried to keep the meetings interactive. For example, we might ask for input on our legislative agenda at one meeting. Or in another meeting, we would say, “All right, here are our three legislative goals for this year, everyone break up in groups around the room and brainstorm where you have connections, where you have interest, and where you would like to play a part.” Committee members were engaged because they were able to participate. It was powerful.

The staff were helpful. For example, at one point, we needed to push for higher funding than we had the year before. Staff said we have eight key legislative targets. We asked the committee who lived in any of these districts. Then staff provided talking points including a script for a phone call and a template for a letter for committee members who lived in a legislator’s district. For everyone, we had wording to put out on our social media channels.  The process worked and we were successful.

Think About Advocacy when Choosing Board Members

A final thought is that the most important thing board members can do as advocates is use their connections. A board member who is close to someone official is like gold. Every organization needs board members with connections, because a call or email from someone who knows the policy maker is more effective. This has implications for board development. At one organization where I was on staff, we made sure we had board members from key districts. So, when we had to advocate, we had a constituent available.

Lessons Learned

  • Elected officials want to hear from you.
  • Staff sets the agenda; board members provide input and connections.
  • Training for board and committee members is essential.
  • Think about advocacy when bringing on new board members.

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