A Compelling Case to Make Advocacy a Part of Board Culture

As grantmakers, we're in this work to achieve something significant because the causes we care about are so pressing -- ending hunger, protecting our environment, supporting equality. Neither we nor the organizations we support can afford to leave any available resources on the table when it comes to achieving broad-scale change. Yet Sonya Campion, GEO member and trustee of the Campion Foundation, makes the compelling case that grantmakers and nonprofits aren't taking advantage of everything at their disposal precisely because many don't yet see advocacy as mission-critical and those who do haven't activated all of their organization's leadership to support the effort.

To start with, every foundation needs to understand just what advocacy is and how it is different than lobbying. The folks from Alliance for Justice remind us once again in their excellent new resource for foundations that all tax-exempt organizations, including foundations, can engage in unlimited amounts of advocacy so long as it does not meet the legal definition of lobbying. This means that private and public foundations can comment on regulations, advocate against an executive order, conduct public education campaigns, and participate in litigation, among other things, without reservation or risk. Perhaps the simplest way to think about the difference between advocacy and lobbying is an attempt to influence specific legislation whereas advocacy focuses on informing the public and lawmakers and influencing executive branch actions.

Many nonprofits have long understood the importance of both lobbying and advocacy; however, according to BoardSource, the Campion Foundation and the other partners in the Stand for Your Mission initiative, board members are an underused resource for advocacy and that must change. They make a compelling case that advocacy should be considered a key part of every board's role. BoardSource even changed their longstanding resource Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards to incorporate this role. The Stand for Your Mission campaign is a challenge to all nonprofit decision-makers -- particularly nonprofit and foundation board members -- to stand up for the organizations they believe in by actively representing their organization's mission and values, and creating public will for positive social change.

Our grantees are more effective when we use all of the tools at our disposal as grantmakers. Mobilizing board members makes good sense given that many board members are tapped for those roles because of their credibility and connections in the community. Activating people who have connections that go beyond the direct sphere of influence for many nonprofits is a no-brainer. For this reason, advocacy can provide the ultimate way to leverage the successes of the work nonprofits are doing directly in their communities. According to Sonya Campion, this campaign came out of a desire to better leverage leadership to create impact: "There is no greater leverage than advocacy. Imagine if we could mobilize just a fraction of the twenty million board members in our country! Imagine elected officials hearing directly from the nonprofit sector instead of just K Street lobbyists! Advocacy is often a tool embraced in the issues nonprofits are working on, but we've come to understand that it just hasn't been in nonprofits' blood."

For philanthropy, we have our work cut out for ourselves. The challenge is threefold. We need to
  • Educate ourselves on just what advocacy is and how it can advance our missions,
  • Take the lead, and convince boards and staffs of all grantmakers that advocacy is critical; and
  • Change our organizational and board cultures to better engage in and support advocacy efforts.

As Campion puts it, this requires a big shift in how we view our work and our role in it: "We need to take a hard look at our work to see what the effects are. We need the ability to say that we've been doing this for too long and we're not making enough of a difference. We have to move faster; we have to go all out now."

So what role can grantmakers play? First and foremost, we can lead by example by engaging our boards in efforts to lift our own voices to support the causes we care about. The recently-released Philanthropy Advocacy Playbook is another great place to start, particularly to understand the legal bounds within which we and our nonprofit partners can operate. For our grantees, we can specifically support their advocacy work by affording them the flexibility to do what they know is important through giving general operating support.

Effective philanthropy requires we leverage all of the tools possible, the most powerful of which is leadership. If we are frustrated by the pace of change, then engaging boards in advocacy is one way to unleash more resources to spur that changes we hope to see in our communities.