Getting your Board on board

True story: once, when I was giving a presentation of a legislative agenda to an agency’s Board of Directors, one of the Board members expressed his disapproval of one particular priority, stood up, announced his resignation, and walked out the door. Seriously.

So, trust me, I understand what my students and other social workers mean when they say that they are concerned about how their Boards may react to the idea of doing advocacy in the first place or to the inevitable conflict associated with advancing social change. It’s obviously important to have support from your Board of Directors as you begin a new advocacy initiative (be it a civic engagement strategy with your clients, a community organizing push, or a legislative campaign), although precisely how important it is depends in large part on the role of your particular Board–hands-on v. rubber stamp, or somewhere in between. As my experience dramatically illustrates, we can’t afford to assume that this support will be forthcoming; rather than treating our Board members like our natural allies, we need to start by regarding them as targets that need to be influenced in order to elicit their full support. Then, of course, not only will we avoid unpleasant surprises in the Board room, but we’ll also gain 8-20 or so effective, well-placed advocates who can carry our message and help to advance our work.

Some thoughts on how to approach this question of Board support:

  • Again, approach the Board like you would a legislative committee or a regulatory agency or any other entity that you need to convince of the wisdom and moral authority of your position–that means collectively (as a Board) and also individually (figuring out which members to target in which order and with which messages). Do some of your homework ahead of time, not only in terms of working with your leaders to figure out what you need to do and to make the case for why, but also to have a sense of how that lines up with where your Board members are coming from.
  • Likewise, decide who’s going to do the approach for individual Board members, and how to raise different components of the outlined strategy. For example, is yours a Board where you want people to first hear about the new strategy in a meeting all together, because there’s a strong urge towards consensus, and you have some influential and outspoken leaders who will lead a favorable discussion? Or are people resistant to change if they feel blindsided, and so you need private discussions in advance? Will Board members respond better if clients/grassroots leaders initiate the discussion, or does your Executive need to play a leading role? Is there a certain committee that will take Board leadership for the work? How much oversight do Board members want/need, and how much autonomy will staff organizers and grassroots leaders have?
  • Be prepared to discuss the role(s) that Board members can play in the advocacy/organizing work, but don’t be too rigid about this; they may have ideas that you hadn’t thought of or were afraid to ask, and you don’t want to miss those opportunities. Think beyond just giving money, although you’ll likely want some of their money; what relationships do they have with targets and how can they leverage those? What skills do they have that you’ll need? Be prepared to talk through your strategy and to find places where Board members can plug in, but resist the temptation to let them dictate tactics–remember that you are modeling an approach that is going to be democratic, inclusive, and empowering (and that means that even Board members don’t have veto power).
  • Be transparent about your goals and understanding of the fact that this work may lead to some difficult moments for some Board members. Some of your targets may be their business acquaintances or even their friends. Some of your targeted issues may be at odds with their personal preferences. The work may get hard and even ugly for you, too, at times, so think of this as practice for confronting these dilemmas in your future. Remember to frame in terms of values and to appeal to that which brought the Board members to your organization in the first place; since your social change goals should be consistent with your agency mission, it shouldn’t be a radical departure, but it still scares people.
  • Which brings us to the key point that you and your agency leadership MUST be prepared that Board members’ feathers will be ruffled, and that sometimes that will mean that people walk. And that, truly, that has to be okay. If you can’t stand to have a Board member sever ties with your organization over issues or strategies that your authentic grassroots leadership has identified as critical to advancement of social justice, then how will you stay strong when a member of Congress yells at you or people picket your office or a radio talk show host asks people to call in to call you names (um, (throat clearing) not that any of those things have happened to me…)? Advocacy and organizing are not about staying friends with everyone. They are about seeking justice, and doing so in a way that provides opportunities for transformation among those with whom you’re working for justice. And sometimes that means having to part company with those who don’t share your goals. And it will be okay.

    For many Board members, the organization’s forays into organizing and advocacy will be a turning point in their own lives–the moment when their Board service becomes far more than something to put on a résumé or a lunch meeting to attend once a month and instead something profound about how they see their lives as a force for good. Part of your work is in giving people that very powerful opportunity, but you have to plan for it, strategize around it, and work through it just as you will every other step of your campaign.

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  • 2 responses to “Getting your Board on board

    1. one of the most informative posts yet!

      • broadkawvalley

        I’m so glad that it was helpful! It can be a really delicate ‘dance’, in my experience–we need our Boards of Directors to support what we’re doing and take a courageous stand with us, but we choose them, often, precisely because of their connections to power brokers outside of our agencies, which, in turn, reduces their willingness to make waves with those same players. The first key step, I think, is not overlooking just how critical such relationship-building and case-making really is!

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