Non-profit organizations are established for a purpose and they generally have a “mission statement” that is approved and ratified by the board of directors. The mission statement establishes the rational for the organization and states in clear and concise language what the organization aims to accomplish and who it hopes to serve in the community. It is a good idea to revisit the mission statement every few years and to either continue to approve it or to make the necessary changes to reflect the changes in the social, educational, health, and/or welfare issues in the community. Non-profits are founded to respond to one or more of these issues and the board and the staff of the agency have an interest in how the broader society, including the government deal with these issues.
In addition to the delivery of services, every organization has an interest in the broader social issues in the society that have an impact not only on the organization but also on the clients served by that organization. One of the vital roles a non-profit organization can play in the community is becoming an advocate for the clients it serves. Being an advocate does not mean only working for particular clients, but also encompasses bringing social issues to the attention of those in decision-making positions as well as providing opportunities for public education.
Many years ago, I was the Executive Director of the Jewish Family Service in a city in the United States. The agency had an active public issues committee that wrote letters, communicated with elected officials, and advocated for better services for the families and children in the State of Connecticut. Of course the committee received the approval of the board of directors before they implemented their program. During the course of the program year they would select a number of issues and would then embark on a path to publicize those concerns and raise the awareness of the public to the importance of developing needed services or improving the situation of people in need.
Once the committee selected the issues they wanted to investigate they began a process of educating themselves and then identified how to proceed in moving forward. The topics included adoption; family violence; family life education for parents; increasing services for children-at-risk and other like concerns that were within the parameters of the services offered by the agency. Once the committee members had enough information so they could articulate their understanding of the issues they then began to formulate a program to publicize the issue; advocate for needed changes in legislation; and push for increased budget to allow services to be provide or to expand existing services.
Specific activities included writing letters to the newspapers; writing letters to politicians; providing testimony to public and governmental committees that were also looking into the same issue; and letting those concerned know that the agency was interested in their plight and not just maintaining its own organization. In addition, public education sessions were held to increase broader awareness and understanding of the issues to build and strengthen public support for both need response from voluntary agencies and public services.
These kinds of activities benefit organizations in a number of ways. When an organization takes a public stand on issues its concern is communicated to the public at large and it is seen as a body that cares about what happens to people in the community. When the community is aware of the agency’s involvement it attracts attention. This results in the media reporting on how a group of volunteers have become advocates for people in need and expansion of services.
The volunteer leaders who serve on the public issues committee feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when they receive responses to their communication with politicians or their testimony at public commissions. In general, this kind of activity and the response to it reinforces the commitment the lay leaders feel for their involvement in the organization. At times there is even public recognition for the involvement. An example of this was the State Senate awarding a Certificate of Appreciation for the Jewish Family Service’s commitment to the families of the State. Of course the board of directors felt a strong sense of pride as their agency was recognized in this way and it provided opportunities for media coverage and broader community support.
A non-profit organization represents the ability of citizens to strengthen the social fabric of the community. It is not only through the provision of needed services to either augment what the government provides or fill in gaps in services but also to enhance the quality of life by having a broader view of what needs to be done. The agency does not have to provide all the needed services, and sometimes by being an advocate for needed changes it becomes the voice of the community. A great deal can be achieved and it will not only make the community a better place to live but will also strengthen the agency’s standing in the community.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.