Barriers to policy engagement, Part 4

[Editor’s note: This series continues PJ’s look at the policy work of nonprofits and philanthropic organizations.]

By Ret Boney

Despite interest by a nonprofit or foundation in pursuing or funding public-policy work, boards of directors can stifle engagement, experts say.

A lack of understanding of the laws governing advocacy activities, coupled with fear resulting from increased government oversight, often causes boards to shy away from policy and advocacy work, they say.

“Boards take their responsibilities very seriously,” says Abby Levine, foundation advocacy counsel for the Alliance for Justice in Washington, D.C.  “Through not understanding what advocacy really is, they’re afraid they’re going to get their organizations in trouble.”

Many board members do not understand that a wide array of advocacy efforts are both legal and even encouraged by regulators, and they assume advocacy is an inappropriate role for nonprofits and foundations, she says.

Sandy Hughes, president of Hughes Consulting Group, a firm that works with nonprofit boards, agrees, and says many board members don’t know what the terms “public policy” and “advocacy” really mean.

And with regulators cracking down on abuses in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, some boards prefer to steer clear of those confusing terms and focus on issues of governance, accountability and transparency, she says.

That disinterest is heightened by a general lack of passion and engagement among board members that Hughes says has increased in recent years.

“The energy doesn’t seem to be there” for advocacy work, she says.  “It’s not as sexy as direct services, so it’s not as interesting to board members.”

Levine says some board members find speaking out on issues too controversial, too uncontrollable, or worry it may alienate government officials, donors and other supporters.

“Every board member has a fear of having the organization appear on the front page of the newspaper in a bad light,” she says.

Levine believes policy and advocacy work is appropriate for almost all nonprofits and foundations, and suggests each organization have a serious discussion about the topic without assuming it is off-limits.

Boards and staff should start by asking if the organization’s mission and goals can be achieved without advocacy, she says, and then have an open and honest discussion about fears and challenges facing board members.

It’s also important to realize that advocacy and policy work doesn’t need to change the focus of the organization and doesn’t necessarily require significant resources.

“Just bringing people to the table to have a debate is useful,” says Levine.  “And that’s advocacy too.  There’s a whole spectrum out there, you don’t have to do it all.”

For nonprofits active in the public-policy arena, having a supportive board is critical.

Prevent Child Abuse North Carolina, based in Raleigh, has its own legislative agenda and works in partnership with other organizations, says Jennifer Tolle Whiteside, the group’s president and CEO.

With a staff of 12, she says, the board’s involvement is important, and members participate in different ways, according to their skills and interests.

That can involve writing letters, talking to legislators or speaking to coworkers, she says.

“They are all very comfortable with advocating for our mission,” Tolle Whiteside says.  “But we have folks that are much more comfortable with one aspect of that than another.”

At the same time, she says the group could do a better job recruiting and training board members, specifically for advocacy work.

“We want our board members to have relationships with policy makers,” she says, and that takes a different level of expertise. “There’s an expectation from policy makers that board members are knowledgeable.”

The group is currently discussing its criteria for board recruiting, Tolle Whiteside says, and hopes to conduct more training on the mechanics of advocacy in addition to training around issues affecting child abuse prevention.

Levine agrees that recruiting is key.

“Just as you want people on the board with financial, legal or marketing expertise, you want people who are comfortable and familiar with advocacy,” she says.

Board orientation is equally important, says Hughes, given that too many nonprofits fail to clearly communicate expectations to new board members.

“Fifty percent of that orientation should be about the group and 50 percent about their role as a board member,” she says, including what their role might be as an advocate.

Not only would focused training help boards members become better advocates, Hughes says, but it could help rekindle their passion and engagement, making them better board members overall.

Previous stories in this series:

Part 1: Tight budgets, lack of flexible funding deter many nonprofits. 
Part 2: Lack of staff capacity and skills limit policy work by many nonprofits. 
Part 3: Fear of retribution stifles voices of many charities, experts say.

Stories in other series:

Part 1: Policy and advocacy should be part of nonprofit toolkit, experts say. 
Part 2: Foundations can influence policy without hurting status, experts say. 
Part 3: Advocacy critical to fulfilling nonprofits’ missions, experts say.

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