Opinion
August 13, 2015

Make Advocacy a Part of Every Board Member's Duty

Advocacy is essential to nonprofit work — but it’s not always seen as a crucial part of serving on a nonprofit board.

That view is changing, however, especially now that BoardSource, the organization that many nonprofits turn to for advice on governance, has put advocacy on its list of 10 basic responsibilities of nonprofit boards.

BoardSource’s stance is part of a larger drive designed to embolden more nonprofit board members to participate in advocacy: the Stand for Your Mission campaign.

The Campion Foundation, where I serve as a trustee, is a founding partner of this effort. Our participation flows from our deep commitment to promoting change in entire systems that are causing today’s problems, which — I believe — is only possible through smart and strategic advocacy.

Our foundation has audacious goals — to preserve wilderness and to end homelessness — but, like so many other foundations, we don’t have the dollars to solve problems on our own. For example, we don’t have the resources to build a home for every person who needs it, nor do we think that’s our role. We believe that homelessness will end when the public demands it and when our government systems make it a priority.

But as our foundation began working to build the political will necessary to end homelessness in Washington State, we noticed a powerful group of leaders sitting on the sidelines — nonprofit board members.

Approximately 1,000 nonprofit organizations are working on housing and homelessness issues in Washington State, and an estimated 10,000 board members lead them. When important decisions were being made in our state capitol, the voices of these influential and committed board members would have been sure to get the attention of lawmakers; but — with a few exceptions — they were missing from the conversation.

We decided that if we could engage those 10,000 board members and get them off the sidelines, we could change the conversation and the priorities.

So the Campion Foundation started a project in Washington State to encourage all nonprofit boards to do more advocacy work. While that effort produced many successes, we realized that we need to do more. If board members are really going to embrace their role as active and engaged advocates for their missions, we need to change the expectations that board members have about their role as leaders. That’s why we are working with BoardSource to spread the word.

One third of the nonprofit sector’s revenue comes from government grants, fees, and contracts. Nonprofits and governments need each other, and advocacy is the path to ensure that political leaders understand the priorities and needs of the people served by nonprofits. If we ignore this reality, we are being truly reckless in our leadership of our organizations; any board would be remiss to ignore such a significant source of money that fuels the essential work done by its organization.

Advocacy isn’t hobbled just because board members don’t realize this is their duty; it is often stymied by foundations and other donors that don’t understand what’s allowed under the law or how much money nonprofits need to wage effective advocacy drives.

So here’s what I hope all my colleagues in the foundation world will join me in doing:

• Educate ourselves on the legal scope of advocacy. Armed with accurate information, we can confidently remove unnecessary restrictions, in both our grant-making guidelines and in our grant agreements, about what our funding can be used to support. This means ensuring that we’re being counseled by professionals who are well informed. If you don’t know where to start, I recommend reaching out to the Alliance for Justice, as it has solid resources for foundations about what we — and the nonprofit organizations we support — are legally allowed to do as it relates to advocating for our missions.

• Fund advocacy (or general operations) within organizations that are advocating on the issues that we care about. We need to avoid the trap of thinking of support for advocacy as something that "takes away" from direct services when, in reality, it has the potential to create change that will enable those direct services to operate more efficiently, effectively, or sustainably. Advocacy is a vital tool that we must use, and use well, or we risk leaving our mandates unmet.

• As a part of our regular due diligence, start asking grantees about how they are leveraging their boards in advocacy — and the board’s engagement in it — as a strategy for greater impact. Board members serve as powerful champions and can bridge different perspectives, turn ideas into solutions, and make good things happen. That’s why they were asked to be on the board in the first place, and that’s why it is not enough for people to sit on boards; they have to stand for their missions.

I see great returns on the Campion Foundation’s investments in advocacy. Last year in Washington State, the advocacy work that we financed resulted in a new, permanent statewide policy that our foster care and juvenile justice systems will no longer release young people unless they have a place to live. We saw $75 million in new funding dedicated to the creation of affordable housing. We are a small foundation — our homelessness program spends roughly $1 million per year — yet we saw all of this progress. And it was achieved through advocacy, from both the organizations we support and their dedicated board members.

In June, several board members gave powerful testimony in support of an affordable housing bill, and I can tell you without hesitation that it made a huge difference in the way that lawmakers thought about the issue. The bill passed a few weeks later.

In a political system marked by apathy and gridlock, it is time for philanthropy to take a long look in the mirror. Are we part of the solution, as we like to believe, or are we part of the problem? Are we doing all that we can to create positive and lasting change and fulfill our philanthropic missions? My honest conclusion is that we need to do more.

An estimated 20 million board members lead nonprofit organizations across the United States. We need to unleash the potential of this influential community of leaders to create positive change through advocacy. We need to ensure the nonprofit voice is at the table. We need to challenge these 20 million leaders to engage in the work that will create real impact. And we need to challenge ourselves as grant makers to make that work possible.

Sonya Campion is a trustee of the Campion Foundation.