Advocacy: An essential board responsibility

[Updated – original version published on July 15, 2015]

Advocacy is an essential board responsibility. That’s the new message being espoused by BoardSource in connection with the release of the third edition of Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards.

I’ve long asserted that board members should consider whether advocacy (and in some cases lobbying) would be an effective strategy and if so, whether they have a fiduciary duty to lead the organization in engaging in advocacy activities. A change in policy, behavior, or law catalyzed by an advocacy effort might be the most effective and cost-efficient way to further an organization’s mission.

BoardSource takes this principle one step further and asserts that a board member has an essential individual role as an advocate of the organization and its mission outside of the boardroom. In an article published by The Nonprofit Quarterly, BoardSource CEO Anne Wallestad explains the reasons why BoardSource is taking this position:

  • Our missions are too important to sit on the sidelines.
  • The need is too great to ignore.
  • We are the people decision-makers need to hear from.
  • We have more power and influence than we think.

And BoardSource puts even more chips on board advocacy with its initiation and leadership of the Stand For Your Mission movement whose motto is “Creating Positive Change Through Board Advocacy.”

There are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States. We employ more than 10% of the American workforce and represent roughly $1.65 trillion in annual revenues. And we have an estimated 20 million individuals leading our organizations who are among the most influential, dedicated and connected leaders: Our board members.


Advocacy is a powerful lever for real impact, but — according to BoardSource’s Leading with Intent report — only 33% of organizations report that their board members are actively involved in advocating for their missions. And many organizations aren’t advocating at all.


It’s time to find our voice. It’s time to stand for our missions. Join us.

[Updated – 1/19/17]

On January 19, 2017, The Chronicle of Philanthropy published In Times of Change, Board Members Must Be Advocates (behind paywall), by Ms. Wallested. In the opinion, Wallested urges boards to do three things:

1. Assess your new reality.

How much do you rely on government funds? What would happen to your organization if that support disappeared or contracted quickly? … What policy changes might be proposed that would significantly threaten — or help advance — your organization’s work?

2. Articulate your values and beliefs.

Do we see our organization as a moral or ethical leader on any issue or set of issues? … What decisions have we made as an organization that we would lift up as a good example of our organizational values? Why? Are there any decisions we’ve made that don’t reflect our values? Why don’t they?

3. Outline advocacy priorities and help make them happen.

Capitalize on existing relationships. … Reaffirm support. … Move past disagreement. … Educate new leaders about your organization and work.

The opinion concludes with a timely and urgent message for all nonprofits to make sure our elected officials know exactly who they are and what they stand for. Consider the following proposed cuts reported by The Hill (Trump team prepares dramatic cuts, 1/19/17) and what they would mean to your nonprofit:

  • National Endowment for the Arts would be eliminated
  • National Endowment for the Humanities would be eliminated
  • Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized
  • The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services would be eliminated
  • The Violence Against Women Grants would be eliminated
  • The Legal Services Corporation would be eliminated
  • The Civil Rights and its Environment and Natural Resources divisions would have their funding reduced
  • Funding for nuclear physics and advanced scientific computing research would be reduced to 2008 levels
  • The Office of Electricity would be eliminated
  • The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would be eliminated
  • The Office of Fossil Energy, which focuses on technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, would be eliminated
  • Reforms to Social Security and Medicare to reduce their impact on the federal deficit seem imminent

Further consider when persons in positions of power are telling and spreading lies or misdirecting the public’s attention from a critical issue in a way that could adversely impact your nonprofit’s mission. The collective voice represented by a nonprofit can greatly amplify the voice of individuals it is serving.