Everyday Advocacy: Nurses serving on Boards

"Advocacy is part of nurses' ethical obligation and a natural extension of caring."

Lisa J. Sundean, PhD, RN
Assistant Professor, University of Massachusetts Boston
Jonas Leadership Scholar
Associate Member, New York Academy of Medicine
Former Statewide Director, Connecticut Nursing Collaborative-Action Coalition
Nurse Board Leader

What began as a desire to volunteer and give back to my community quickly became an opportunity to leverage my expert nursing knowledge and perspectives to advocate for health and healthcare as a nurse board leader.

In this role, I advocate for the constituents of the organizations on whose boards I serve. The role of board leaders is to provide prudent fiduciary oversight to ensure that an organization meets its stated mission within all appropriate laws, regulations, and policies. I have been serving on nonprofit boards for nearly 20 years, including for hospitals, fundraising organizations, YWCA, professional nursing organizations, and family foundations. Overwhelmingly, these experiences have been positive. I have had opportunities to advocate for improved healthcare quality and health equity; allocation of resources to support healthcare services; programs to support early childhood learning centers; adolescent leadership programs for girls; higher education programs for underserved women; financial support for single mothers; improvements to the patient/family experience; services for mental health; innovative programs to support nursing education; and initiatives to support nursing workforce data infrastructure. I unabashedly advocate for the appointment of nurses on boards.

On all but one board, I have been the token nurse, presenting both a challenge and an opportunity. Often, I am the only person with a background in healthcare like the one I have, and I have had to sharpen my communication skills over the years to translate "nurse-ese" and our particular perspective into something others can understand. This is a particularly important challenge to rise to – and one I think nurses should embrace! – on hospital boards.

Advocacy is part of nurses' ethical obligation and a natural extension of caring. Whether at the bedside, in communities, or in the boardroom, nurses are critical advocates. We have the knowledge, skills, and perspectives to advocate for changes and policies that improve lives on many levels. If you are interested in becoming involved in advocacy work beyond the bedside, let others know about your interest! In particular, identify the people I call "door openers" and be clear about your intentions. Take advantage of opportunities presented to you, and when you are identified as an advocacy leader, step confidently into that role. As a nurse, you have the critical knowledge foundation and skill set to contribute. Stay focused on the purpose of your advocacy role; the individuals, communities, and populations. Let the purpose fuel your advocacy work.