By: ML Bennett, MPA, CAP®
President & CEO, The Arc of San Antonio
Marion Lee penned last July that “In 2005, Barbara Taylor, Richard Chait and William Ryan wrote Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Board. This book and its follow-up: The Practitioners Guide to Governance as Leadership from Cathy Trower are not easy reads, but well worth the effort. Chait and his co-authors present functional Board governance as a series of how-to’s (modes and mind-sets) versus the more common concept of to-do’s (tasks and technical). In his book, Chait introduces the concept of the “generative or sensemaker” mode of governance added to strategic and fiduciary modes.”
The generative mode should be in high gear given the challenges of the past year and those to come. Few if any of us face the same circumstances, demands, funding streams or future that we did in March 2020. In that generative mode, says Trower, boards “’generate’ 1) insight and understanding about a question, problem, challenge, opportunity, or the environment, and 2) a sense of the organization’s identity in order to most effectively respond to the problem or environment, or to seize the opportunity that best reflects what the organization is, how it sees itself, and what it values.”
While that generative responsibility of the board may be applied to many aspects of an organization’s arc through time, I suggest that now more than ever it needs be applied to framing the question: where does organizational advocacy reflect and support mission? Our missions are to significant degree guided, assisted, and/or constrained by governmental & political realities playing out at every level of our society. Advocacy is the tool available to address those realities and turn them, in positive, supportive ways towards the needs of our constituents and our services.
Boards, by definition, should bring a diverse perspective on the community we serve. They also should provide perspective on the governmental/political issues that frame a portion of our reality. More importantly, they bring connections and relationships that may assist promoting our mission and its needs to those who make decisions that affect us. We are in the midst of societal discussions about all manner of topics and agendas that do ultimately reflect in policy and funding stream decisions that affect our ability to serve.
Chait points out, “Governance as leadership requires that Boards cultivate the art and skills of retrospective sensemaking, nuanced discernment and robust discourse. (oversight, foresight, and insight).” An illustrative point, as some are concerned about the line past which nonprofit organizations may not tread in attempting to influence public policy.
Advocacy properly done is clearly a legitimate function of nonprofit organizations. Boards and senior staff must be clear about what is appropriate and allowable as to manner of advocating for the cause; once those guidelines are clear, it is time to move ahead on those issues of greatest import to your mission.
The Arc as a national organization defines it thus: “Advocacy on the individual or systems level is acting with or on behalf of an individual or group to resolve an issue, obtain a needed support or service or promote a change in the practices, policies and/or behaviors of third parties. Advocacy is essential for promoting and protecting the civil and human rights of people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities and for establishing, maintaining, or improving their quality of life.
Discussion of an organization’s position re: public policy and legislation should be based in a solid grounding of the organization’s history, mission, current capabilities, etc. It is vital that the organization’s leaders establish a methodology and an expectation that taking a position on public policy issues and clearly communicating those positions to all relevant parties is an integral part of mission.
It may be eight months since Marion’s post, but it’s been a year “+” since “recent events have placed unparalleled stress on the nonprofit community. Some of this stress might be mitigated in future if we practice more of the generative state of governance focusing on leadership as well as stewardship.” Let us continue towards “doing better work.”