Get Over It–Your Board Doesn’t Fundraise

When I fell into my first fundraising job, the expectation was that I would fundraise.  I could tap staff and program people (in the case of my first job that meant faculty) to help, but it was my job and I was expected to bring in the funds.

The board was there to govern, to offer strategic advice, to give their substantial gifts (okay, that should have actually been listed first), and occasionally help me–when I asked–with an introduction or information about a prospect.  And yes, they did from time to time ask their friends to make a gift (in return for their gift to their friend’s favorite nonprofit), buy a ticket to an event, or come as their guest to that event.

I was okay with that.  I knew what the expectations were and it was clear to me that if I wanted to involve my board, I had to reach out and involve them.  I had no fantasies that anyone came on my board because they wanted to fundraise.

Then, somehow, the conversation became all about boards and their fundraising responsibilities.  The big problem?  Board members don’t want to fundraise, and even those who are willing, don’t know what in the heck they need to do!

Personally, this is a good thing.  I get hired a lot to help staff figure out how to motivate their board members to raise funds.  And I get to do a lot of workshops and presentations on how to turn your board into fundraising superstars.  Or at least, (mostly) willing partners.

It works.  Often.  But in large part it depends on how the board was recruited, how well they are trained and—this is a biggie—how much work staff is willing to put into the process.

My sister—who I often call my mirror image for many reasons but mainly because while I work at or with nonprofits helping them to fundraise more effectively, she supports nonprofits as a major donor– serves on a number of boards.  Many years ago, when I was first confronted with the news that boards fundraise and clearly my board was not, I whined to her that my board just wasn’t doing what I needed my board to do.

Instead of commiserating with me, which is what I expect my mirror image to do, she asked me a very difficult question.

“Are you,” she asked, “doing what they need you to do?”

Probably not.  I had focused on my needs and didn’t bother to find out what they might need.  Back to the drawing board.

I learned that there were a couple of steps that had to be taken before a board would ever become a fundraising board.

The first is the ensure that your organization exudes a culture of philanthropy.  That starts with a belief across the board that fundraising matters. Everyone at the organization must believe that raising funds to support the mission IS as important as the mission itself.

It also means that fundraising staff understand what their job—as it relates to board fundraising—requires.  In fact, this just might be the first critical step.  They must understand that their No. 1 priority is to support and supplement the fundraising work of board members and volunteers. Fundraising professionals are actually volunteer managers who identify, motivate and support the work of board members.  Not the other way around.

The second step I’ve already mentioned:  Recruiting the right board members.

You should never, ever be simply putting bodies on your board—and then wondering why they aren’t effective.  During that process, you must be very clear what the board members role in philanthropy at your organization is.  And, since you are probably not starting with a clean slate, but must work with the board members you have, begin by giving current members clarity on their fundraising roles.

To do that, you must be clear about what you can reasonably expect a board member to be doing.   Presumably, most of your board members are bright, successful people.  And presumably, most of them aren’t fundraisers by profession.  There’s a reason for that—they don’t want to be professional fundraisers—so why do we pretend they should be?  What they are, are volunteers who are passionate and committed about the work of our organizations’.  And it is that which we need to harness.

Managing your board’s fundraising means that you work with each and every one of them to find the places where they can be successful.  None of us likes to work at things where we have scant success.  Work with your board to explain the process of development—and what role each of them can play.  And note that, just as my sister and I are mirror images of each other—so are the steps in fundraising.  The things you do to cultivate a donor are the same things you should be doing to steward them. In fact, the best fundraising happens right in the middle of these circles.  Every conversation a board member has with a prospect is a way to prospect , cultivate, steward, and solicit.

Instead of asking recalcitrant board members to identify five major donor prospects, ask them to steward five existing donors.  They can make thank you calls, write personal letters, invite the donor on a tour, or meet them for coffee to say, what you do matters.  And in doing so, they will feel that what they do matters.

by getting your board to partner with you in the development process, you will be helping to turn their engagement into investment.  The fact is, those who are most engaged give first.  They know that they lead by example

They will feel good about being a philanthropic role model.  They will especially feel that way if you keep giving them jobs they love.  And give them a pass on those they hate.

If you do all these things, who knows?  Maybe you will be one of the few organizations where the board does truly fundraise!

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