It’s time for nonprofits to advocate for their missions

(The following op-ed was authored by Sonya Campion and originally published in The Seattle Times on November 21, 2014)

In a year marked by voter apathy and political gridlock, it is time for the nonprofit sector to take a long look in the mirror. Are we part of the solution, as we like to believe, or are we part of the problem? In short, are we being true to our pedigree as mission-driven organizations? My honest conclusion is that we need to do more.

In Seattle, charitable work has deep roots. Local foundations and nonprofits are a major force for innovation and social change here in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. This week we were a fitting host for one of the charitable community’s most important events, Independent Sector’s annual conference. The national network of nonprofits, foundations and corporations has spent the last 30 years leveraging the power of nonprofits and making their work ever more effective.

Washington state has more than 18,000 charities, employing up to 300,000 people. Nationwide, nonprofits employ 10.3 percent of the workforce. Nonprofits don’t just raise money; they also spend it, contributing $887 billion to the United States economy in 2012, according to the Urban Institute.

The influence doesn’t end there. Most nonprofits are governed by boards. Sitting on these boards are community leaders, business leaders, moral and spiritual leaders — a total of 20 million people who can prompt decision-makers to take notice and act.

Those board members are very much on my mind. Here’s why: I am a trustee of the Campion Foundation. One of the issues we fund is the effort to end homelessness. A one-time count last year found 779 homeless teenagers in King County alone, 125 of them sleeping outside. We don’t just need more beds. We need to address the reasons why young people find themselves in such dire straits.

One of the women in philanthropy who influenced me was Priscilla “Patsy” Bullitt Collins, who applied her family wealth to worthy causes in the Pacific Northwest for decades. She once told me, “When people are falling off a cliff, you can either build a hospital at the bottom or a fence at the top.” Going that extra step to build the fence at the top requires that we advocate for real policy change. Yet, advocacy is a world where too many in the nonprofit sector hesitate to tread.

I believe it is no longer enough to sit on a board. We need community leaders to stand up and speak out on their missions. This fall, a group of us, led by BoardSource, the national center focusing on nonprofit governance, launched Stand for Your Mission, a campaign and guide to help transform board members into ambassadors and, yes, advocates in the larger public arena.

Consider the possibilities. In Washington state alone, charities that work on housing and homelessness issues have 10,000 board members. The Legislature next year will be considering the Homeless Youth Act and other measures to address homelessness. These bills would preserve funding for programs that serve homeless youths and extend foster care to the most vulnerable young people. Imagine if we could leverage the connections and credibility of those 10,000 board members to help get this legislation passed.

Board advocacy works. The board of the San Diego Youth Symphony, for example, led a successful campaign to get music education back into the area’s schools.

Nonprofits are a powerful force when they work together and aren’t hesitant to stand up and be heard. I call on all of us involved in charitable work to do what it takes to cure the social ills that drive our passion, and to not be satisfied with just treating the symptoms. Advocacy is a critical tool that we must use, and use well, or we risk leaving our mandates unmet.