Want to fail in your advocacy campaigns? Ignore building your board of directors

May 19, 2016Robert Hay Jr.

Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinions and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision makers. This column is written by association professional Robert Hay Jr.

As an association leader or nonprofit advocacy professional, if you are not composing the membership of your 2020 board of directors, you are already failing in your future advocacy efforts.

Stop here and consider that statement in another way – in four years, your nonprofit will be facing unknown issues that are likely to affect the way you or your members operate. If you don’t believe me, look back to your association’s 2012 advocacy reports to your members and leadership committee. Chances are there were issues then that either had a dramatic impact on the future of your membership, or laid the groundwork for a major issue in the coming years.

As government relations professionals, we have so many immediate concerns that deciding who our volunteer bosses will be down the line seems like a waste of time. Yet no group may be more important to your future legislative success than future board members. Consider the powers a board has – the ability to allocate funds for various initiatives and operations, the loudest voices advocating for or against advocacy strategies, and the people who can fire you or your executive director if they are displeased with the direction of the association. If you want your advocacy efforts to succeed, you need to have a supportive board on your side.

This is nothing new in association management; many articles have been written about working with your board on issues or using them as the grasstops on your grassroots network. The advice is plentiful for trying to shape an existing body, but why not begin today to help identify and work with board members of the future? The stress of aligning your work with the board’s expectations is drastically lessened when the persons who serve have years of experience and knowledge working with you, your issues, and the GR process.

To achieve this, the smart association leader treats finding future volunteers the way he or she chooses future employees: constantly scouting. It is a critical first step that members and volunteers who show leadership potential not only be identified as such, but nurtured to the point that they can assume a place on the board when the time comes. To do so successfully, there are a number of key steps you can take now:

1. Your association should have a leadership pyramid. It’s one thing to see a member leading a state delegation to a Hill visit, but that alone may not make them the right fit for your association’s leadership. Every association should have committee succession plans built into its policies and procedures. The advantage of this is that these potential leaders have a pathway to grow in responsibility and learn more about the organization, while offering proof in actions that they are fit for a board position. Such a success plan should distinguish between the different types of your nonprofit’s volunteer groups and how leadership is chosen for each; ideally, the opportunity to move from a vice chair to chair is there as well. Once a promising volunteer is identified, they can be plugged into a slot and guided by leadership through increasing levels of volunteer responsibility.

2. Plug your volunteer leaders into your advocacy efforts. If you hold an annual Hill Day, your committee chairs should be on your host committee. For members you have identified as future board members, begin to both use them as valuable advocacy assets and show them how your processes work. For example, associations with PACs are better off sending a constituent to a fundraiser to allow them the face time with members of Congress. This gives them practice in creating their association “stump speech,” and most local members actually enjoy attending fundraisers, so it builds goodwill.

3. Host regular volunteer issue briefings. This can be as simple as a regular webinar or virtual town hall with your volunteer leaders. Individuals who ask the right questions or make novel suggestions are people to earmark as potential leadership candidates.

4. Expose your prospective board members to new leadership situations. Often associations do this by adding more analytical members to financial committees, but the same concept can apply to your government relations committees. We tend to like to pick someone who once worked on the Hill or as an elected official to chair, but sometimes a person who shows potential in other areas (say, someone with a marketing background) would make a good chair of our PAC or advocacy committee. The benefit works both ways – your committee is exposed to new ideas separate from the usual GR think and you have a chance to give advocacy leadership training to a person who could one day be your volunteer boss. While this is an easier process for a committee more heavily staff-managed, even the most independent committees can benefit from an outside perspective.

An association board of directors can be the biggest wild card in the success or failure of your advocacy efforts. Just as in any other part of a lobbying campaign, planning ahead and helping build allies early is a critical part of your future success.

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