Impact, Advocacy, and Board Responsibility

Boards and their members should be conscientious ambassadors and advocate for their organizations. They should stand for their mission by communicating and connecting with community leaders and others who are in positions to make decisions that could positively — or negatively — impact their organization’s work.


With a style, format, and methodology similar to Jim Collins’ Good to Great, Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, published an excellent, very influential book, Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits (2008). 

Forces for Good identified a diverse array of nonprofit organizations that had successfully made a nationally or internationally systemic impact. It then analyzed these organizations to see what qualities or strategies were held in common among them to determine what the “forces for good” are. As interesting and important for the nonprofit sector as the conclusions Crutchfield and Grant identified, were the ways that they wrestled with the definition and operationalization of the concept of impact because there was and is no clear, sector-wide agreement on what impact means.

Crutchfield and Grant made some interesting choices as they defined impact, eschewing measures of growth, internal management, and traditional measures used by many charity watchdogs to measure overhead (and this was in the days before Dan Palotta’s Ted Talk and before public discussions of the “Overhead Myth.”) They argued that because organizations worked in different sectors with different goals, that impact was something that was both specific and contextual, unique for each nonprofit organization. They also agreed that impact was not meaningful if it was not sustained.

Taking a page from Collins’ Built to Last book, which preceded Good to Great, they asked nonprofit leaders to nominate organizations that they believed had the greatest sustained impact and then vetted the nominated organizations through a series of 60 interviews with thought leaders, faculty, foundation staff, and other field experts.

When they analyzed the winnowed list, searching for common characteristics among them to answer the question of what common practices drive meaningful impact, Crutchfield and Grant recognized 6 core practices of high impact nonprofits:

  1. Advocating (as well as serving). While most of their organizations did not begin as advocacy organizations (only a small minority did), all of the organizations they studied eventually realized that in order to create and sustain lasting change, they had to be involved advocacy.
  2. Making markets work. Whether through building partnerships with corporations or creating earned income ventures, these organizations all harnessed the power of market forces.
  3. Inspiring evangelists. High impact organizations recognize that their supporters can do so much more than donate or volunteer; they can be apostles for the organization’s mission. High impact organizations help their evangelists by giving them tools to spread their “gospel.”
  4. Nonprofit Networks. Going beyond typical “collaboration,” high impact organization grow and nurture nonprofit networks which—out of self-interest—they develop.
  5. Adaptive Learning. These organizations are nimble, listen, learn, and adapt based on feedback and learning.
  6. Shared leadership. High impact nonprofits have leadership models that distribute leadership throughout their organization and their network. Many are empowered to lead.

At the time that Crutchfield and Grant identified the practice of advocacy alongside of service as central to nonprofit organizations having high impact, most organizations either delivered program services or engaged in public advocacy—but not both.  Very few organizations attempted both, believing—among other things—that the two different strategies for social change necessitated separate sets of skills.  

Crutchfield & Grant’s 2008 book has been very influential on the nonprofit sector. It remains an important touchpoint for thinking on best practices. In 2011, the two (Crutchfield & Grant) published an update on the book in an article in Stanford Social Innovation Review, reflecting on whether the six factors were applicable to smaller organizations, organizations with budgets of $300,000 to $5 million, and concluded it was applicable, even if smaller budget organizations might implement the six factors in a different order or build them out in a different way than organizations with a larger budget might.

Crutchfield has also partnered with Jon V. Kania to write Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors That Change the World (2011) building on the work of her earlier book with Grant.   

With the publication last week of BoardSource’s updated Ten Basic Responsibilities of Board Members,  I’ve been thinking a lot about Crutchfield and Grant’s book.  The Ten Basic Responsibilities of Board Members list of the core, fundamental, legal responsibilities of a Board member has been gospel for all of us for many years. Most of us have relied on this list to orient our board members and to explain board members’ responsibilities for new members.

When BoardSource changed this list last week, BoardSource didn’t make the number of items on the list longer, but what it did do is determine that ADVOCACY is a core responsibility of Board Members. The responsibility to advocate for the mission is added to the first core responsibility (to determine an organization’s mission and purpose) and discussions of advocacy are added to several other responsibilities such as the responsibility to enhance an organization’s public standing.

The choice to incorporate advocacy into the 10 Basic Responsibilities list is an interesting one. In some ways it seems long overdue. It’s been 7 years since the identification of advocacy as central to accomplishing lasting impact by Crutchfield & Grant.  

Further, we’ve all known intuitively that what board members do outside of meetings is at least as important as what they do inside meetings. Indeed, often board members are invited to serve on boards because of who they can reach, influence, or ask to give outside of board meetings.  

Overdue or not, the choice is a welcome one. BoardSource has revised the 10 Basic Responsibilities for Boards as part of a campaign it has launched in collaboration with the Alliance for Justice, the Campion Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the National Council of Nonprofits, and the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers.

Recognizing that only 33% of all nonprofit organizations have board members currently engaging in advocacy, the campaign, Stand For Your Mission, calls on the 20 million US nonprofit board members to stand for their missions, to use their powers of influence to affect the environments in which they live and operate in ways that positively impact the causes and people they serve, to advocate.

The publication of Forces for Good and the emergence of advocacy alongside service as a “Best Practice” of high impact nonprofits was unexpected in 2008. Today it has become widely accepted. And yet, we (in the nonprofit sector) still don’t widely engage. We should thank BoardSource and its collaborators in the Stand for Your Mission campaign for reminding us to be a voice for our organization (If not us than who?), for encouraging us to engage in this Best Practice, and for providing us toolkits to make it easier.

If you and your board members need help getting started with advocating, Stand for Your Mission has put together a great collection of tools and resources:


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