Leading Through Change: Finding Your Voice as a Nonprofit

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 Leading Through Change: Finding Your Voice as a Nonprofit
By Alyson Weiss

In these uncertain political times, the nonprofit community has started asking important questions: What is our responsibility to speak out on behalf of our staff, our clients, and our community, when current events or political actions impact them? How do we advocate for our clients, while remaining an open and inclusive space for all political identities?

The leadership team at YNPN Boston has been asking these same questions. Traditionally, we have not spoken publicly about anything that could be construed as political. Our reticence to speak is grounded in a few reasons that I think are common in the nonprofit sector:

  1. Fear of losing members and donors
  2. Fear of misrepresenting the opinions of those members and donors, since we are a network, and a statement from us may seem like a statement on behalf of all
  3. Fear of violating our legal status as a 501(c)3
  4. Confusion over when we would speak, who has the authority to write a statement, and who would need to approve it to go out from us

However, over the past year, the board decided they wanted advocacy to play a major role in our strategic plan. Because we are new to this arena, and come to this work with the previously-mentioned fears, I was thrilled to see a session at Leading Through Change: 2017 YNPN National Conference and Leaders Institute in Atlanta, GA called ‘Fight the Power: What’s Our Chapter’s Responsibility to Systems and Sector Change?’, led by Lindsay Bachar, the Treasurer of YNPN Twin Cities.

YNPN Twin Cities began speaking out just last year, and their advocacy has taken the following forms:

  1. Statements about current events, including the police shooting of Philando Castile and the immigration ban
  2. A campaign to move unpaid internships off of job board and onto volunteer listings. They did this by speaking to the three largest local job boards.

Lindsay’s session contained a ton of insightful, actionable tips on how nonprofits can find their voice, and begin to speak out:

  • Reach consensus on the issue areas you will speak out about. It is important that you are able to respond quickly, while the news is still relevant. Because of this, it can be helpful for the board and/or senior leadership team to pre-agree on which types of issues you will speak out on, and which ones you will not.

  • Identify the type of messaging you are comfortable with. Are you comfortable asking your supporters to support specific candidates or pieces of legislation? Do you want to condemn hateful actions, and ask that your community take care of themselves? Agree together on what type of messaging your organization will put together when the issue areas you have agreed on have come up in the news.

  • Figure out who needs to approve messaging. You want to keep the number of people who need to approve your messaging as small as possible to allow you to respond quickly, but you also don’t want to leave out crucial voices. Decide on this before the moment you need to respond.

  • Understand your tolerance for risk. Are you willing to lose members of volunteers over your statement? There is no right or wrong answer to this, but you do need to be aligned on it. When you go from a silent organization to one taking a stand, you move your circle of supporters. This means you are likely to gain new folk who did not previously know about or support your organization, but you also may lose others.

This session could not have come at a more prescient moment. The weekend of #ynpn17 was the same weekend that white supremacists and neo-Nazis terrorized Charlottesville. It was a call to be bold and vocal. YNPN National laid a strong foundation by facilitating a community conversation at the conference, and by releasing this statement on Facebook.

Still, we were curious about the legalities of a 501(c)3 taking a stand on anything remotely political. If this is a concern for your organization as well, we recommend checking out this checklist from Nonprofit Votes, an organization that partners with nonprofits to help the people they serve participate and vote, and this list from Jeffrey Berry, a professor at Tufts University:

Can your organization….

Support or oppose federal legislation?

Yes

Take a policy position without reference to a specific bill?

Yes

Support or oppose federal regulations?

Yes

Lobby if part of your budget comes from federal funds?

Yes

Use government funds to lobby Congress?

No

Endorse a candidate for federal office?

No

Talk to elected public officials about public policy matters?

Yes

Sponsor a forum or candidate debate for elected office?

Yes


After attending Lindsay’s session, reading YNPN National’s statement, and learning about our organization’s legal rights and restrictions, we decided to make our
first public statement ever as an organization. I wrote the first draft, and the Executive Committee of the board and a leader of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee signed off on it - five people total. We sent the statement in an email to our leadership team, a separate email to our listserv, and in a blog post. Here are some of the personal considerations we made when creating the content:

  • Our mission and vision. Because YNPN Boston is not an issue advocacy organization, we chose to focus on helping young nonprofit professionals figure out what they can do to make an impact, rather than supporting a specific piece of legislation or just condemning the act.

  • Our identity. I am a white woman, and the actions in Charlottesville primarily targeted people of color. In response to this, I made sure to quote people of color in the statement and and follow the advice that they were offering, rather than erroneously act as an expert.

It can be nerve-wracking and risky for organizations to speak up in an increasingly polarized society, especially when statements can lead to loss in funding, volunteers, or other resources. However, the day-to-day challenges most of our clients face - whether it is poverty, lack of access to health care, or discrimination - are directly impacted by the system that they live in.

I am grateful that Leading Through Change: 2017 YNPN National Conference and Leaders Institute gave us the tools we needed to find our voice, and I hope it can help you and your organization find yours. When organizations ignore the systemic barriers, they miss an opportunity to make an impact on the entire puzzle, rather than a small piece of it.


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