Boards are increasingly vital to nonprofit success. Advocacy Boards can be one strategy for board engagement no matter your organization’s size. It brings a Board together around the mission of your program, while ensuring the people most suited to support your work see the nuances of the issues, and ways to specifically assist your group’s pressing concerns. Most nonprofits know that their Boards of Directors need to possess a broad range of critical skill sets.
As a whole, they should have the expertise and experience necessary to exercise appropriate oversight for complex organizations providing vital – and often highly regulated – services for our most vulnerable individuals and families. They need to understand finance, law, real estate, technology and risk management, in addition to the agency’s own operations and the needs of the community it serves. And, of course, they need to have fundraising punch – the proverbial ability to “give” donations themselves, or know where to “get” them. Increasingly, however, nonprofit executives are coming to see the importance of also building a Board that is ready, willing and able to advocate publicly on behalf of the agency’s own programs and clients – as well as for the nonprofit human services sector as a whole. With an economy in the doldrums and governments at all levels cutting back on key funding for important human services programs, “giving” and “getting” is no longer enough. Nonprofits also need board members who are prepared to go out and fight for the mission they believe in.
At Grand St. Settlement, we are privileged to have just such a Board. There have been several recent cases in which individual Board members and the Board as a whole have stepped forward to play an active role in advocating on behalf of our programs and the people we serve.
In 2010, the NYC Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) announced plans to close one of our child care centers, one that the City had actually asked Grand St. Settlement to sponsor several years earlier. The City’s decision to close the center had nothing to do with the quality of the program or the needs of the community.
When parents who used the program expressed outrage at the decision, our Board decided to actively advocate to keep the center open. The Board met at the center with families and representatives; wrote letters to elected officials, including Mayor Bloomberg; met personally with the ACS Commissioner Mattingly; and stood on the steps of City Hall with parents and children calling on the City to reverse its decision.
Our Board’s participation in this advocacy effort was extremely helpful and, I believe, was crucial to our success in keeping the center open that year.
Perhaps most importantly, our Board members – like many of their colleagues on the boards of other human service nonprofits – are prominent leaders in their respective fields. These are not the types of advocates – family members, clients and staff – that government officials usually hear speaking out in response to budget cuts or program closures. Their voices stand out in the crowd.
Our meeting with ACS to stop the planned closure of the child care center included our Board Chair, Board President, a parent, the president of one of our major foundation funders, Grand St. Settlement staff members, in addition to myself as Executive Director. Commissioner Mattingly commented on how unusual it was for ACS to meet with such a diverse group of advocates actively fighting on behalf of a single program.
At the same time, the active involvement of the Board and individual Board members was extremely encouraging for parents and staff alike. It served as a clear indication of just how important their cause was to the agency as a whole, and that our volunteer leadership was on their side.
The child care center struggle was just one of several instances in which the Board stepped up to play an important role. They have also lent their voices to causes which go beyond the agency itself. Earlier this year, our Board Chair and President joined with colleagues from other settlements for a forum on broader budget and policy issues hosted by United Neighborhood Houses.
Why has Grand St. Settlement been so fortunate to have Board members who are willing to actively lend their names and expend their own time and effort as advocates in support of our mission?
In some ways, that is a hard question to answer.
Grand St. Settlement’s Board is diverse. It includes individuals who want to give back to their city that has been good to them and their families. It includes members who began their service with us as volunteers, directly involved in mentoring children and supporting families. In recent years, our Board has added more members who were born and raised in the community we serve and share the ethnic and cultural traditions of our clients deepening ties even more.
At Grand St. Settlement, part of my role as Executive Director involves ensuring that Board members understand the impact of the programs we operate and the opportunities we create to change lives. I believe the passion that our staff and I have for the work we do is actively shared by our Board members.
I also believe that the close personal involvement that many of our Board members have with our programs ignites their passion and fuels a willingness to fight on their behalf. When one of our Beacon programs was threatened with closure, the Board stepped in. They knew – not just intellectually, but in their hearts – what the loss of this program would mean for those families and the community as a whole if youth and families were disenfranchised.
A personal connection and emotional involvement with programs and participants can lay the groundwork for building an Advocacy Board. Ultimately, however, the Executive Director needs to issue a “Call to Arms” and invite the Board or interested individual members to participate in an advocacy effort. At the very least, executive directors need to be sensitive to the mood of the board and know how, and when, to tap their growing sense of activism.
This first step can be a little frightening. Nonprofit advocacy with elected officials and government funding sources requires diplomacy. No one wants to jeopardize long term working relationships with government officials. Board members need to understand this conundrum and undertake their advocacy efforts as part of an overall coordinated effort. At Grand St. Settlement, we have been fortunate in that our Board has always asked staff what they could do to help.
Once empowered, an Advocacy Board can be a tremendous resource for any nonprofit. At Grand St. Settlement we have found that our Board is now ready to swing into action – ever ready – whenever they are needed. It is important for them – and to us – not to abuse this trust. We only want to call on them to support high quality programs of critical importance to our community. It is reassuring knowing that they are there.
Margarita Rosa is Executive Director of Grand Street Settlement.