Tag Archives: Boards of Directors

Don’t go right to tactics

It is an axiom in organizing.

You need a strategy before you can craft tactics.

And, yet, we all have an impulse to go straight to tactics. They’re fun. When we’re talking tactics, we can argue about fun things like what time the protest should start and how many buses we’ll need. Instead of agonizing over really hard questions, like what it will really take to get policymakers to prioritize child nutrition, or what kinds of policy changes will best combat obesity.

But this post isn’t about why campaigns fall apart if we skip straight to tactics. There are really great books about organizing–and YouTube videos and TedTalks and smart organizers willing to answer questions–that provide ample evidence (and great stories) to that effect.

It’s a reminder that there’s another reason why we can’t afford to go right to the tactics.

We need to bring our stakeholders along with us.

I see it often, when social work advocates are trying to get their Boards of Directors or CEOs or colleagues to get behind an advocacy initiative. We want to talk about the actions that we have planned, the tactics that we’ll implement. Sometimes it’s because we know that advocacy won’t seem so scary once people know what we really have in mind–we’re not necessarily going to be standing on a street corner in a chicken suit–or because we want to make something that sounds sort of ephemeral–‘advocacy’–really concrete.

But that’s an error, on our part. It creates the very real possibility that quibbles about tactics become reasons not to do advocacy at all, because we haven’t first come to agreement on the goals. It expects that people will leap ahead with us, when they deserve to understand the vision–and have an opportunity to shape it–rather than just being asked to show up.

If we want people to share our excitement, to buy into our plan, then we need to articulate the goals, instead of immediately thinking about how we’re going to make XYZ happen.

We need to paint a picture for how the world will look different if we pull this off.

It invites people to think about the value of this advocacy for your organization, as well as the real possibility for abiding social change. It allows you to craft, together, metrics for success that measure things that really matter.

It answers the question, “Why should they care?”

And, then, they’ll want to help you figure out the slogan for those t-shirts you need to print up.

I promise.

Analyzing ALL the Risks

When I work with nonprofit organizations around integrating advocacy into their work–especially into direct social services–the first objection that I usually hear (often, interestingly, from Executive Directors, voicing the concern on behalf of their Boards of Directors, not directly from Boards themselves) is:

“But there are so many risks.”

And there are, of course.

Risks that funders will take objection to the policy issues that you’ve chosen to advocate for, or that some of your program partners may do the same, or that you’ll get so much attention for your advocacy that your service mission will be obscured (although, truly, isn’t that a problem we’d sort of like to have?), or that your staff will be too overwhelmed and overworked to add another thing to their to-do list?

But what I almost always find is that, in accounting for these risks and weighing their options, organizations fail to acknowledge the very real risks that come with not doing anything.

Because there are costs there, too.

And the potential for danger is huge.

Risks that decisions about your funding will be made without any of your input. Risks that the rights of those you serve will be eroded. Risks that infrastructure and the safety net will be cut, thus necessitating your ever-increasing activity, without ever-increasing resources.

Risks that the bottom drops out from under your organization, and your work, and you don’t notice until it’s too late.

In the rest of life, we’re familiar with the truth that there are risks in action and in inaction.

But, somehow, when it comes to advocacy, to contesting ideas in the political arena and speaking up for the causes we care about, we somehow lull ourselves into thinking that the sidelines are safe.

They are not.

This doesn’t mean that action is always the best course, that your organization should take on every possible cause, or that doing something (anything!) is always better than doing nothing.

But it means that our calculations, about when advocacy is worth it and what price we’re willing to pay, must include an honest assessment of the risks of sitting this one out.

We don’t need to hold their hands

Yes, I know that I see everything through a parenting lens.

But, really, there’s a lot of overlap, sometimes, between parenting and advocacy.

Take how we deal with nonprofit Boards of Directors, for example.

I hear so often that agency staff are reluctant to ask Board members to take on advocacy, afraid to really even broach the subject of the risks inherent in advocacy, and timid about identifying Board culture as an obstacle to effective advocacy, even when it is.

I mean, yes, I get it that we work for the Board.

I think that’s a good thing.

But…they’re grown-ups.

If they really don’t want to be here, they don’t need to stay. And we’ll never know what they can do for themselves if we don’t let go.

That’s where the parenting analogy comes in.

It’s a lot like the organizing maxim, I guess: Never do for someone else what they can and should do for themselves. Only this is more “never deny anyone a chance to do what they should be doing, for you.”

My kids surprise me all the time, with how they respond to being asked to do something for themselves. Usually, they are hesitant at first, even resistant.

Ben is known to throw himself on the floor and wail that he ‘can’t’.

But, when they do it–whether it’s deliver something to the neighbor next door or put their shoes on by themselves or pour their own milk–there’s such a sense of satisfaction.

You know that, right? The good feelings we engender when we support people’s empowerment.

But it also brings us closer to each other, because I appreciate that they’re doing for themselves, and they value that I believe they can.

And that’s where this Board connection piece comes in.

Because we–as nonprofit staff and advocates–are too often guilty of complaining about Board inaction, or Board intransigence, when we haven’t even prodded them into the action we want to see. When, sometimes, we haven’t even asked.

What if we did?

An organization I’m consulting with recently set up a Board Advocacy Task Force and asked Board members to commit to several types of activities to support the organization’s advocacy, including serving as a sort of ‘kitchen cabinet’ for the staff advocate, forming a speakers’ bureau to evangelize for the organization in the community, communicating directly with legislators, participating in Mental Health First Aid training.

And, mostly, they said yes.

But the story doesn’t end there, because this increased engagement–not that much time, really, on the part of Board members–doesn’t just mean a difference in the organization’s ‘advocacy bottom line’. It also changes how staff see Board members, as partners, and how they see advocacy (as something we all do here).

Asking more of those who have pledged their allegiance to your organization draws you closer together.

Just how I feel when Ella gets dressed by herself.

Using our whole bench

I have tremendous respect for those who run social work organizations.

In my consulting practice, I work closely with CEOs, and I don’t envy their mix of responsibilities–managing people, meeting budgets, evaluating programs…all the while (we hope) charting a vision that inspires people, mobilizes allies, and solves core social problems.

All of this is to say that my thoughts about how we can better utilize our resources within social work organizations are in no way intended to suggest that I could do that work any better. Because I could not.

But some of my conversations with former students, and some parts of Zilch, have me thinking about the very limited resources that constrain many nonprofit organizations, and about how we might overcome those limitations. It’s more than just an academic interest of mine, since “we don’t have anyone who can do that” and “we are already so overworked” are two of the most common objections to the idea that organizations should integrate advocacy into their services.

We can’t afford that.

But I get it that organizations can’t afford to do staff advocacy campaigns the way that they’d like to, either.

So, it has me wondering: are we really using everything we have?

I know, that sounds obvious. Of course, all of our folks are working hard, and everyone thinks that we’re doing as much as we can.

But, are we?

There are three groups of people I think we’re not adequately utilizing. And, if we’re going to be able to do more, even with less and less, we’ve got to bring everyone into the game.

  • Interns and volunteers: I’ve never bought into the idea of staffing something really mission-critical, like advocacy, with an entirely ‘intern squad’–that’s not a reflection on their qualifications, certainly, but rather the recognition that, too often, that’s code for “we don’t really take this seriously.” But too many of my students complain that their practicum organizations don’t give them adequate opportunities to engage in policy, community organizing, or other macro activities, and that’s a waste, not only for their current organizations but also as an investment in their future practice. We need to cultivate a culture of advocacy in our own organizations AND in our profession, and students are the best place to start.
  • Board members: Some of my students also tell me that they hardly ever interact with the Board of Directors and that, indeed, the Board seems somewhat sequestered, not engaging too much with the daily operations of the organization or, certainly, its social change campaigns. I see this in my consulting practice, too, with staff who are very protective of their Board members, reluctant to ask them to contact their legislators or contribute to strategy planning, or, even, make donate financially. I don’t get that. I mean, what’s the use of ‘keeping your powder dry’ if you never intend to fire a shot? What are we saving them for? Our Board members are fully capable of taking care of themselves, and their time, and it won’t be the end of the world if we lose a few Board members because their idea of service is significantly less involved than ours. This same principle extends to our donors, too; why do we think that asking people who already give their money to give 15 minutes of their time (to make a phone call to a policymaker, for example) is just way too much to expect?
  • Former employees: This was an idea from Zilch that I thought was genius. We have a lot of turnover in social work organizations, and, most of the time, those employees who are leaving are doing so in search of new opportunities, but not because they are no longer committed to our missions. Why don’t we ask them, then, to stay involved with our work? In exit interviews, why don’t we invite them to continue to receive our e-newsletters? Why don’t we tap their expertise to ask them to contact their policymakers? They’re more likely to respond than a random member of the general public, and yet we’re often even less likely to ask them. It doesn’t make sense; these valuable former employees are resources we can’t afford to leave on the table.

What about you? What ways have you found to fully leverage all of your human resources? How have you learned to do more advocacy, even in the era of less? What stops you from putting in all of your reserves?

Why I volunteer

Gifts awaiting sorting and disbursement at the Johnson County Christmas Bureau

From a distance, my life might look a little, well, unmanageable.

I mostly take care of my kids all day, and then work in the evenings–communicating with students, planning lessons, reading about nonprofits and about social policy, working for some of my nonprofit clients, writing.

And, whenever I can (which, in the past couple of months, hasn’t been as often as I would like), I volunteer.

I was thinking about these volunteer roles recently when talking with some students, some of whom were sharing that their volunteer experiences were the only occasions on which they had really had a chance to feel a little bit like social workers, and some of whom were claiming that their lives didn’t leave them any time to volunteer, although they lamented that this left them feeling pretty disengaged, at this point in their careers, from social work organizations.

Time constraints are valid. Social workers (and social work students) need to recharge and renew, if we are to effectively and sustainability serve those with whom we work.

And I’d never argue that my schedule would make sense for everyone.

So, this is not a “I should, and you should, too” post. Now, wouldn’t THAT be annoying?

Instead, since that conversation, I’ve been thinking about why I volunteer, and what I look for when I do, and why, right now, I’m missing my volunteer engagements as a pretty essential part of my life. I’d love to hear from those of you who volunteer in some capacity, about why you do and where you do and how you make it work, and I’d be grateful if you’d share your own volunteering reflections and advice, as my students and I continue to think through how volunteer activities fit at this point in their careers.

  • Sometimes, I volunteer as a way to share my values and my vision of the world with my own family. I volunteer at our church because I want our kids to grow up in a faith community that approaches discipleship from the same perspective, and that requires that I work to help build that faith community. I volunteer places where I can take my oldest son, sometimes, so that he can find roles that are meaningful and allow him to make connections beyond his narrower world.
  • I volunteer to shape organizations that I care about–not just our church, but on Boards of Directors of organizations that work on issues like school finance that are very close to my heart (and my family), and I volunteer as a pro bono consultant for some organizations working on immigration policy and other critical justice issues.
  • I volunteer to stay connected to the realities of social policies on the ground. It’s one thing for me to believe very strongly that good social policy should be crafted by those who understand its implications; it’s another for me to make sure that I’m investing the time necessary to maintain those linkages, too. I don’t want to be someone who just talks about how wrong poverty is, although I believe that talking is, indeed, one of the ways that I contribute to the quest for justice. I need authenticity, and struggle, and pain as constant parts of my connection to the social problems that are inherently painful, and volunteering is a way for me to sit down face-to-face with what social policy looks like in real life.
  • I volunteer because it allows me to work on skills that no one should really pay me for. I’m certainly not the world’s greatest direct social work practitioner. And I’m way worse at construction and meal preparation and some of the other ways in which I like to be able to dive into tangible help–the kind where you can look at the end of the day and see some impact, rather than waiting for three legislative cycles. There’s a real satisfaction in that work, but the only way that I have any business engaging in those activities is as a volunteer with pretty limited authority and little organizational investment.
  • And that relates to my final reason for volunteering–sometimes it’s wonderful to be a part of supporting others’ efforts, rather than the one convening. It’s a beautiful thing to show up and follow orders and feel part of a larger effort pursuing social justice, without having to do all of the preparation or replay the whole event in your mind later. Volunteering usually doesn’t feel like something else added to my list of responsibilities; it’s a sort of different kind of play, and it really is renewing. For me.

    So, volunteers–what are your favorite experiences to share, and what motivates your volunteering? And, those who want to volunteer but aren’t, what stands in your way, and how might we organize voluntarism so that it would work for your life?

  • Crowdsourcing your Board?

    What if you didn't need a chair to have a 'seat at the table'?

    While I wrote about some reflections on The Networked Nonprofit in December, it has taken me quite awhile longer to think through Chapter 11: Governing through Networks, where the authors make some recommendations about how integrating social media thinking, not just the tools, can improve the performance of Boards of Directors and, in the process, revitalize nonprofit organizations in some critical ways.

    I’m not a governance expert, although I’ve certainly had a lot of experience with nonprofit Boards, as an employee, consultant, volunteer, and Board member. I’ve seen a few really effective Boards create powerhouse organizations that excel at achieving their mission, and many more lackluster Boards that fail to do much except eat the free lunch they’re given every month.

    It’s the latter kind of Board that Kanter and Fine argue social media principles, such as transparency and equality and collaboration, can help to avoid. Importantly, this doesn’t mean just friending your current Board members on Facebook, but, instead, an emphasis on how to truly transform governance to make it more congruent with today’s social media climate of openness and fluidity.

    This means, of course, that we stop looking only to the ‘usual suspects’ for potential Board members, and that we think, instead, about how members of our crowd can participate in shaping our organization’s future.

    And I believe that this orientation to Board recruitment, development, and process could, in turn, create new kinds of nonprofit organizations that would, among other things, be more open to risk-taking and stand-making, which the nonprofit sector desperately needs.

    The book is worth reading for Chapter 11 alone, really, especially if your current Board is anything less than spectacular. Here are a few of the authors’ key suggestions about how to begin to open up a Board within the social media space, with my commentary about the implications for creating advocacy-friendly nonprofits, too.

    I want to hear from Board members, employees, volunteers, and students within nonprofit organizations. How does your Board currently operate, and what might applying some of these principles mean? What are your Board’s guiding imperatives today, and how might those change under a social media perspective? How would you crowdsource governance at your organization, if you could?

  • Include your Board members in a public social network: While it’s not the end of the process, making sure that your Board members play an active role in your organization’s online presence can help to communicate your mission and objectives (and, for example, policy priorities) while also providing a vehicle for others to weigh in.
  • Create an open invitation to Board meetings: It always baffles and alarms me when students say that they’re not invited to even participate in their own agency’s meetings. What’s the big secret? I can’t help but hope that organizations would take stronger stances on advocacy issues, in particular, if they had to do so with clients and the public listening.
  • Post draft agendas online: Your crowd, including donors, volunteers, and clients, will be much more engaged in conversations about how you can enhance your work if they see a meaningful mechanism through which their participation will matter. Allowing the public to comment on Board agendas won’t generate a groundswell of retweets, certainly, but those who do care will know that you do, too.
  • Make sharing the default: Instead of expending energy trying to keep things private, Boards should be oriented towards opening up real conversations with their stakeholders, not in controlled bursts but as part of a larger dialogue about the change they want to be in the world. This may mean, as the authors suggest, meeting outside of the Board room (like your state capitol, during the session!), or including online participatory tools in your strategic planning process, or having ad-hoc or standing committees that include not just Board members but also interested members of the public, or inviting leaders and clients to interface with your Board, or asking for Board nominations through social media channels, or…all of the above.

    Aren’t the functions of a real nonprofit Board–setting the course, monitoring the progress, providing the tools–too important to be left to just the Board?

  • Jumping in with both feet: Nonprofit Board service for new social workers

    New Board members for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey (http://www.kcfaa.org/about/board-of-directors/)--pretty much all guaranteed to be cooler than I am, but wouldn't that be fun?

    New Board members for Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey (http://www.kcfaa.org/about/board-of-directors/)--pretty much all guaranteed to be cooler than I am, but wouldn't that be fun?

    There are a lot of resources out there for young professionals who are interested in serving on a nonprofit Board of Directors, but they are mostly written from the “make your life more meaningful by applying your skills to the heart-warming work of nonprofits” perspective. For social work students, recent graduates, and young professionals, that doesn’t make much sense. I mean, we spend our 9-5 (OK, 9-7? 9-9?) lives ‘giving back’–why in the world would we volunteer for ANOTHER nonprofit organization in our (limited) free time?

    During the last several months, though, I’ve found myself making this suggestion to many of my students and former students: consider joining a nonprofit Board of Directors. And so I’ve done some thinking about why I think this makes sense for social workers, and also how I would suggest that a social worker and/or social work student get started. Some of the links above are still applicable, though, and could be helpful in preparing you for how some of your Board colleagues will approach their Board service, given that, for most nonprofit organizations, the majority of them will not be social workers!

    “I’m a social worker. Why Board service?”
    The rationale is unique to every Board member, and to every organization/member match, so you’ll have to find your particular reason for serving, but here are some that I have articulated in conversations with future, new, and relatively new social workers:

  • Get to know how Boards of Directors operate–this will help you as you approach your own agency’s Board as part of your organizational change strategies or as a social work executive within the organization. You’ll learn how Board meetings operate, how committees function, and what drives Board members’ decision-making. Obviously, each Board has its own nuances, but you’ll open the secret curtain and learn some insights that can guide your own work.
  • Build relationships with powerful figures in your community, which can also help you to leverage influence for your own causes. Obviously, you need to authentically care about the organization on whose Board you’re serving, not just be there to meet people who can help you with your full-time job, but the deep relationships that you can build on a Board of Directors can spill over into other work as well.
  • Build skills that will complement your social work skills–you can serve on personnel, finance, or fundraising committees (they’re, um, pretty much always looking for volunteers!). You’ll often serve alongside accountants, business people, managers–those who have some of the skills you may be looking to enhance. These skills can help you in your own work and/or professional advancement.
  • Relieve burnout by getting involved in a cause not directly related to your own work. I know that others might have a different idea of relaxation/recreation, but I find serving organizations that are doing valuable work that is not my own work lifts my spirits and recharges me for my daily commitments. When I was nearly drowning in immigration lobbying, for example, I volunteered at a domestic violence shelter, helping with an art therapy project (I know–art therapy, me? But it worked; all I had to do was manage the supplies and help with the promotion piece!). It centered me to be with clients and to be a bit outside my element. You can choose a Board that’s working on something close to your heart but not directly related to your main job.
  • Distinguish yourself from other candidates–here’s where you’re not so different from that business student looking to enhance his/her résumé. The job market is not good for social workers, especially in some fields/areas, and serving on a Board can set you a bit apart, help you make connections, and place you centerstage if that organization looks for permanent hires.

    “OK, so it might be a good idea. How do I get started? And how do I keep this from taking over my life?”

  • Start with organizations you admire and trust–maybe those with which you have served in coalition, or places you have referred a client and been pleased with the result? Every organization has its own conflict of interest policy for Board members, so you’ll need to be upfront about your affiliations with the organization, but you can usually find a way to make it work.
  • Find a good fit between the organization and what you want out of it–if you’re after skill enhancement, you probably want a smaller nonprofit where the Board is more hands-on; if you want to build relationships with powerful people, then a larger organization is probably for you. Ask about the time commitment, the committee structure, financial obligations, and other parameters. You want to know what you should expect!
  • Finally, be prepared to ‘sell’ your social work background to organizations. Because most nonprofits are much more familiar with social workers as employees rather than Board members, you will likely need to explain how your particular skill and knowledge set will be an asset to their organization’s leadership: your understanding of their client base, perhaps; your ability to represent some of the concerns of workers; your facilitation and conflict resolution experience; your data analysis or presentation skills; your understanding of grant guidelines or federal/state regulations…think about what you know, and what you can do, and how those abilities connect to what organizations need to accomplish.

    I’d love to hear from new social workers who serve on Boards of Directors–what benefits did I overlook? What have your experiences been as Board members? And what advice would you like to share? Do you have resources to help other social work Board members?

  • 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.