Leadership

Can Advocacy Save a Board?

By / Nov 2, 2015 (iStock/Thinkstock)

One writer argues that a standing committee can give a board a stronger backbone. Perhaps—if you’re doing it for the right reasons.

At the risk of suggesting that governance is nothing but a minefield of dysfunction, let’s revisit disgruntled board members again.

Last week, I wrote about how one association helped keep its past presidents engaged in the work of the organization. But what if keeping the person in the loop isn’t quite satisfying enough? Worse, what if the former board member’s disgruntled status is vocal and having an impact on the perception of the organization?

”You will upgrade your recruitment tools with an added job of advancing your agency’s agenda.”

About a month back an article in Nonprofit Quarterly floated an interesting suggestion for how to respond: Step up your advocacy efforts. In response to a question from a reader about a former board member who’d been trash-talking the organization since the end of his tenure, Mark Light puts in a good word for robust vetting of volunteer leaders, but adds that the reader can “deal with the renegade ex-board member by counterbalancing his message through your own robust advocacy effort.”

A focus on advocacy, Light explains, serves as a kind of test of your board member’s enthusiasm for the organization. Your top leaders should be ambassadors for your mission, and if your organization is in any way impacted by regulations or receives grant funding, then it’s natural to expect them to get involved that way. Light even goes so far as to suggest creating a standing committee for advocacy: “In the process of engaging your board to do the good work of advocacy, you will upgrade your recruitment tools with an added job of advancing your agency’s agenda,” he writes. “That, in turn, will mitigate the possible damage of your ex-board member.”

Problem solved. Maybe.

I’m skeptical. Advocacy is unquestionably important for the nonprofits that choose lobby. But lobbying also involves a particular skill set that entails an understanding of public policy; a grasp of the political climate at federal, state, and local levels; a particular enthusiasm for the law; and, more likely than not, fundraising talent. These are good things to have in board members. But they’re also subordinate to the main skill you want in volunteer leadership, which is strategic thinking.

Glenn Tecker, chairman and co-CEO of Tecker International, is unpersuaded that doubling down on lobbying will do much to assuage or counteract the behavior of a disgruntled ex-board member. “There is no evidence that a large organized advocacy committee will quell the protestations of a strongly opinionated vocal Board member whose views do not correspond to the majority of views in the board,” he says.

An advocacy committee might do some good, though, he says, if public-policy issues are top of mind for the organization—so long as such committees are proactive and not reactive. A successful committee, he says, “will identify areas of concern relevant to the membership, identify the specific issues of importance in each arena, determine what the organization would like to have happen to that issue, suggest strategy to accomplish that end and guide the formation of campaigns to achieve the desired outcome. Less sophisticated committees react to proposed legislation and rule and provide informed recommendations to a board of directors about what tack the association should take.”

And if you’re involved in an association where leadership is suddenly plumping for the importance of advocacy, Tecker suggests caution. “In the past executive directors with political ambitions for public office have used a call to advocacy on issues of importance to their own partisan affiliation to make a name for themselves among party powers. This self-serving strategy has almost always placed the association in jeopardy.”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with advocacy in and of itself. And it may very well help an organization to be more mindful of the political environment it occupies. But rare is the association that needs more standing committees. If you’re going to pursue it, pursue it for the genuine advocacy needs of your organization, not to blunt the impact of a few trash-talking loudmouths. Or as a substitute for good orientation of the leaders you have on hand.

What do you do to make advocacy valuable and relevant to your board’s work? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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