The Role of the Board of Directors in Social Change Organizations

Last week I was assisting a colleague of mine in developing a guide for a strategic planning process focused on social change organizations. Social Change Organizations focus on making a change in the structure or in social institutions, social behaviors or social relations in to society or social policies and not only through the provision of services. A question came up about the role of the board of directors. Apparently there are people involved in social change organizations who think that the strength and determination of these non profit agencies emanate from the commitment and passion of the staff. They tend to view the board of directors as more “establishment” and less involved in the efforts to foster change in the local community and the society.

If the board of directors is viewed as an “establishment” group and thought to represent the status quo rather than working for societal change then the organization, as well as the volunteer leadership who make up the board, are not being used properly. One of the primary roles of an organization’s board is to be involved in the broader issues in the community and the society. If it is solely focused on the purposes and functions of the agency then it is being myopic and missing a valuable opportunity to use its knowledge and expertise in order to foster social change.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that the non profit organization’s mandate includes working for the betterment of society and not just the parochial interests of those served by its programs. The board of directors should represent the society’s sanctioning of agency’s purposes and services, and as such, there should be a commitment to work for the betterment of the community. For example, a voluntary social service organization has a social change function as represented by the public issues committee of the board of directors. This committee should be charged with monitoring societal trends as well as the activity of the legislative bodies involved on both local as well as national levels.

The non profit organization is not only charged with monitoring but also with advocating for change in legislation and in the administration of public services. Although it is important to write letters to editor and/or the legislature and governing bodies, it is not sufficient. The non profit organization has a mandate to represent those who are unable to speak on their own behalf or speak effectively for themselves.

Conceptually, the board of directors of a non profit organization should be seen as an advocate for change and it should be comprised of people who are not satisfied with the status quo and are prepared to invest in advocating for change. The change they embrace should be one that either provides for a new understanding of the needed interventions to enhance people’s lives and/or to improve the community’s response to people in need.

Members of the boards of directors should be activists who are prepared to become involved in advocating for change by participating in demonstrations, producing material to educate the larger community and/or in testifying before administrative and legislative bodies in the government. Although these kinds of activities are consistent with the public issues function of a board of directors there has been a dearth of role models to provide examples of appropriate action on the part of board members. Case examples should be studied by boards of directors so they can plan and implement activities that are appropriate for their organization.

When working for social change comes naturally to the organization’s board of directors, there is a reinforcement of the values guiding their work and the organization’s role in the community. This provides a wonderful sense of accomplishment among the leadership of the organization. It not only contributes to the community by demonstrating how the agency can foster social change but also confirms that the organization’s commitment is to improve the quality of life for all citizens.

Of course there are non profit agencies that have not played a role in dealing with broader social issues and working for social change. It would behoove board members of these organizations to raise questions and to explore what the organization could be doing in the community. It may be necessary for the board to embark upon an educational process to develop an understanding of the basis of such actions and what kind of projects would be feasible for the leadership to adopt.

Working for social change has to start somewhere and it is never too late for a board to educate itself and begin to expand its involvements in the community. This is not a function of the non profit that can be ignored nor handled only by the paid staff members. When the organization examines only what it does internally and does not consider what it could be doing to impact the broader community it is letting itself down and missing an opportunity to influence the lives of its members and clients.

At the very least each non-profit organization should have an open discussion among its board on what impact it is having on the broader social issues in the community. This would provide the opportunity for an internal audit of the organization’s impact on public issues. The board could then decide if and how it wants to become more active in having a broader impact on the community and on people’s lives. It can be exciting and rewarding to those inside as well as open doors to others outside and foster interest by new people in the activities of the organization.

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.