The highest performing nonprofit boards understand that public policy affects the work of their organization. They continuously leverage advocacy as a way to stand up for the mission and people they serve.

But what does the board’s role in advocacy look like? And how does it relate to the work of staff members in advocacy?

There are three main ways that board members engage in advocacy, all of which should be supported by a fundamental understanding of how the public policy environment is affecting — or could affect — the organization’s work and the people and communities it serves.

Three Critical Board Roles

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  • Understand how the policy environment could impact the organization’s work.
  • Build strategies that seize public policy opportunities and address public policy threats.
  • Leverage advocacy as a way to “get things done.”
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Budget and Resources

  • Understand your organization’s budget and any public funds that may be vulnerable if public policy shifts.
  • Prioritize resources to support strategic engagement in advocacy, e.g., coalition membership or staff time.
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Personal Engagement

  • Leverage your influence and networks in support of the organization’s advocacy efforts by making calls, setting up meetings, etc.
  • Attend meetings with decision makers and law makers together with organization staff.
  • Participate in group advocacy efforts, such as lobby days or congressional hearings.

Board Engagement in Advocacy:
An Essential Board Role

BoardSource believes so strongly that boards have a role to play in public policy and advocacy that we made it a part of board members’ Ten Basic Responsibilities.

Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards

Advocacy in Action: National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis

Although not every board member is directly involved in advocacy, the board’s support for the organization's advocacy efforts is essential. The board’s backing has a tremendous impact on the organization's work for social and economic justice. The NCJW-St. Louis Board of Directors has the responsibility of approving financial commitments that go towards advocacy as well as approving all advocacy initiatives. Of note, the board approved a significant advocacy budget that enabled the organization to expand coalition work, bolster their presence during the legislative session by providing testimony on issues, write and find sponsors for their own pieces of legislation, and host a reception where legislators from both sides of the aisle attend and discuss areas of agreement.

The Conversation You Should Be Having in Your Boardroom

Nonprofit organizations have their own unique histories, cultures, and missions, and, therefore, their own orientations to advocacy. But, no matter where you are in terms of organizational advocacy — engaging a lot or not yet doing anything— the path toward greater impact through advocacy begins with an honest conversation in the boardroom about your organization’s mission, goals, and, most important, its vision for the future.

The following guide is designed to help you start an important conversation about advocacy. While some organizations may be able to move ahead quickly because they have already grappled with the more fundamental questions presented here, others may want to spend more time on these questions before moving forward. Regardless of where your organization starts, we encourage you to use this guide as a tool for facilitating ongoing board dialogue about how your organization will “stand for your mission” by engaging in advocacy on behalf of your mission and the people and communities, you serve.

Step 1:Define a Shared Vision for the Future

Your organization was founded to meet a specific need or purpose and, as a part of that, is likely to have a vision of what the world would look like if that mission was achieved. Ask your board to answer the following questions:

  • Is the board in agreement about our organization’s vision for the future?
  • How would the world be different if our mission was fully achieved?
  • Are our current strategies the fastest or most direct path to achieving our vision? If not, what would be?

Step 2:Understand the Ecosystem in Which You Operate

All organizations are impacted by the larger environment and ecosystem in which they operate. Understanding what that ecosystem looks like for your organization and where you are situated within it are critical steps for your board. Ask your board the following questions:

  • What are the societal realities or problems that our work seeks to solve, alleviate, or otherwise address?
  • What are the broader issues associated with our core work?
  • Are our strategies actively addressing those issues? If not, what would change if they did?

Step 3:Identify the Opportunities & Threats Affecting Your Organization

Changes in your community, funding sources, and public policy environment affect — either positively or negatively — your organization’s ability to achieve its mission. Identifying and understanding the opportunities and threats affecting your organization is a key step in building an advocacy strategy and in ensuring that your board is well positioned to help implement that strategy. Ask your board the following questions:

  • What are some of the external factors that have positively or negatively impacted our work in the past? How well did we — as a board — anticipate them before they happened? Did we try to stop or soften the bad ones, or rally to support the good ones? If we didn’t, what might have been different if we had?
  • Are there policy changes that would dramatically improve (or threaten) our ability to fulfill our mission and vision? If we could advance our mission more effectively by changing one law, public policy, or public attitude, what would that change be?
  • If we partner with government to deliver our programs and services through government contracts or grants, how well do we understand how changes in public policy could impact this funding?
  • How are the people we serve impacted by public policy? Are there barriers to their success that changes in public policy could help alleviate? Are there threats to their well-being that are being contemplated by decision makers?
  • Are we — as an organization — actively engaged in conversations with decision makers about the policies or decisions that affect our work? If not, why not?

Step 4:Prioritize Advocacy As a Strategy

Boards are responsible for setting the organization’s strategy in partnership with staff. Therefore, boards play a critical role in determining the role advocacy can and should play in its overall strategy and how best to resource those efforts. If your board doesn’t understand how public policy impacts your organization, then the board is setting the organization’s strategy without seeing the complete picture, and may make decisions that fail to account for the realities facing your organization, your community, or the people you serve. Ask your board the following questions:

  • Do we regularly consider the public policy environment when we discuss our organization’s strategy?
  • Have we allocated the resources necessary to stay informed about the policy environment, whether through our own efforts, through participation in an advocacy coalition, or both?
  • Are we clear on the priorities for our advocacy efforts, and are they aligned with what would make the biggest difference for the people and communities we serve?
  • Do we have goals for our advocacy work that enable us to assess how well we are doing across all the links and connections that are vital to our success?
  • Do we have the organizational resources necessary to engage in efforts to amplify, educate, research, or build coalitions when our mission calls us to do so?
  • Could we join with other coalitions who are working toward similar goals?

Step 5:Leverage the Board’s Unique Value as Part of Your Advocacy Strategy

Every board member brings a potent combination of passion and influence to his or her board service that — if leveraged — can powerfully accelerate your organization’s advocacy strategy. And being an active ambassador and advocate for your mission is a part of each board member’s fundamental roles and responsibilities. Ask your board the following questions:

  • Is serving as an ambassador and advocate an expectation for each board member? Have we written this into our board job description or commitment?
  • Have we provided training or guidance to board members about how to engage effectively in advocacy efforts that enable them to represent our mission and work with confidence?
  • Do we understand our board members’ networks of influence well enough to strategically leverage them as a part of our advocacy efforts?
  • Do we have board leaders who can speak to and connect with a broad cross-section of community needs and constituencies in support of our work?
  • Is our board recruitment strategy aligned with our public policy strategy, and the connections or influence that will advance those efforts? Is this reflected in our board postings?

Advocacy in Action: LGBT Center OC

In the 2015-2016 California Healthy Kids Survey, 10.3 percent of LGB youth and 21.2 percent of Trans youth in Orange County, California, reported feeling unsafe or very unsafe, compared to 4.1 percent of non-LGB and 4.3 percent of non-Trans youth. Persistent statistics like these over the course of the LGBT Center OC’s existence is why the center — with the full support and participation of its board — includes advocacy for a more equitable, welcoming, and culturally competent and accepting spaces for LGBTQ youth in schools as a central part of its mission and work. By sharing their personal mission-related stories and never wavering in their commitment to advocacy, board members have helped the organization stand up for LGBTQ youth in the past as well as now, when they are feeling less accepted than ever due to the recent turn to conservatism at the federal level of the government. To date, key successes have included changing policies and implementing staff training at several school districts in Orange County, acquiring the support of the Association of California School Administrators for a conference for school superintendents and administrators on LGBTQ youth, and training youth to become their own advocates.

Board Members’ Personal Engagement in Advocacy

Advocacy is a powerful way to leverage the important work that your organization does. As an influential community leader and board member, you can help increase the likelihood of your nonprofit’s success by engaging in advocacy. Being an advocate is directly connected to each board member’s fundamental responsibility to champion the organization’s work — to stand for your mission.

To engage in advocacy as a board member, you don’t have to be an expert on advocacy. Here’s what’s most important:

  • Who You Are: The reason that board advocacy is so powerful is because of who you are as a board member. You are an engaged and influential member of the community. And you vote. Make sure the person you’re talking to knows it!
  • Make it Personal: Share why you care about your organization and its mission. Do it in a personal way that makes it real for whomever you’re speaking with. That’s what they’ll remember.
  • Connect the Dots: Make sure that you explain how things are connected. Does the local, state, or federal government rely on your organization to provide vital service to the public? Is there a policy decision that could accelerate your impact? Is there an administrative regulation that is standing in the way of a good solution? Help them understand how they can help you.
  • Coordinate with Staff: Your organization needs to be coordinated and consistent in its advocacy efforts. Make sure to communicate with your ED/CEO, so that you can strategize on the best approach, which may include doing things together.

You don’t need to make a major commitment of time to effectively engage in advocacy.

In fact, the whole point of engaging as a board member is that your community connections and influence may be really helpful in speeding up advocacy efforts and making them more successful.

Here are some examples of ways that board members can make a difference in a relatively short amount of time:

  • Get a Phone Call Returned: If staff have been trying to get a decision-maker to respond, you might be able to call to someone you know (or who knows you) that will ensure that your organization is able to connect with the appropriate person.
  • Encourage Attendance: If your organization is having an educational town hall or other event that would be helpful in educating decision-makers about your work, your invitation might make a difference in getting them to attend.
  • Get a Meeting: If you know a decision-maker, or even if you’re simply a voter in their community, your participation in a meeting can make a huge difference in whether or not the meeting takes place or how it goes.

Advocacy in Action: Hillsides

As the 1990s came to a close, it became clear to Hillsides' board and executive leadership that to truly address the root causes of child abuse and nurture the development of permanent, loving families, they must effect systemic changes. At the time, promising new models for prevention, early intervention, and treatment were coming to fruition, yet many service providers were constricted by years of government funding cuts combined with a significant increase in the need for services. The organization found that while well-intentioned, lawmakers were often ill-informed about the needs and concerns of vulnerable youth and families as well as the realities on the ground for the organizations that serve them. Similarly, public attitudes about mental health and foster care were frequently clouded by misconceptions and stigma. Hillsides developed a Strategic Advocacy Plan to change this dynamic. Through advocacy, Hillsides seeks to educate the general public, engage stakeholders, and influence policy in order to heal children, strengthen families, and transform communities. Through their efforts, seven bills were signed into law expanding access to mental health care and higher education for foster youth and an increased housing pool for families and youth transitioning from foster care to adulthood.

We call upon those boards and board members who are not yet standing for their missions through board advocacy to have a discussion about how to get started.