Check-Up Clinic: Board Engagement

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Solving the Mystery of Board Engagement and Fundraising

by Jeb Banner

Nonprofit fundraising is heavily impacted by board engagement, so over the last two years, Boardable has conducted and sponsored multiple surveys to better understand the challenges that nonprofits face in working with their boards. Although I’ve founded two nonprofits and served on several boards, I was surprised by how many board members lack confidence in their own board fundraising: In “A Study of Nonprofit Leadership in the US and Its Impending Crisis,” fewer than half (46.8 percent) of all participants had an optimistic view of their current fundraising environment and only 50.8 percent felt more optimistic about the future funding climate in the next six months.

Why the Pessimism?

While individuals tended to have a positive view of their own efforts (rating themselves 6.34 out of a 7-point scale), views of their board’s ability to raise funds as a whole were much lower, at 4.0. Many boards were either unwilling or unable to play an active role in fundraising. If individuals felt they had a good understanding of fundraising and could positively contribute to the fundraising process, why is this knowledge not being translated into cohesive board action?

First, many board members view fundraising as a singular individual contribution, equating their own individual annual contribution to a “one and done” effort. Other board members look at fundraising as a narrow specialty, done by specialists, and not the responsibility of every board member. Finally, many boards and board members simply look to the executive director to “make fundraising happen” (while EDs feel they need better nonprofit board engagement in the fundraising process).

These results informed the development of questions for our 2019 survey entitled, “The State of Board Engagement in 2019,” in which we asked more focused board-engagement questions:

  • Do boards feel engaged?
  • What are the drivers to board engagement?
  • What stifles board engagement?
  • Do board members feel there is a direct connection between board engagement and fundraising, and if so, how are the two linked?

The 2019 survey garnered 640 responses, demonstrating concern about pervasive board issues like lack of meeting preparation or the fact that only a few board members are doing the heavy lifting, both of which can stifle engagement. Fundraising continued to be of high concern as did engagement, particularly regarding both direct and indirect fundraising. The survey also showed the continued prevalence of individuals adding their own capital as a “one and done” fundraising effort, and while boards always have some members who do more fundraising than others, only half actively worked to solicit donations for the organizations they served. Furthermore, nearly 30 percent would only fundraise when specifically asked to do so.

Lack of board member engagement is definitely apparent to executive directors. According to data from a Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund report, “Daring to Lead,” three out of four executive directors describe vastly inadequate board member engagement in fundraising. But board members also recognize the shortfall: About one-quarter (27 percent) of all board members were disappointed in their board’s efforts, particularly regarding fundraising. Respondents said that very few board members actually followed through to assist in fundraising, even though fundraising is clearly a significant board responsibility.

What Can Make a Difference for Boards in 2020?

Engagement efforts are crucial, particularly since boards have been shrinking in size (according to BoardSource’s report, “Leading with Intent“). The majority of boards in our 2019 survey had fewer than 20 members, with nearly half (42 percent) having fewer than 10. Shrinking numbers highlight the increased importance of sustained board member engagement: While smaller boards can be more agile, the risk is that they cover less ground and reach fewer donors.

I offer three suggestions:

First, expectations for board members must be made clear, from board member recruitment and screening to selecting a board chair who is comfortable addressing board member shortfalls. A nonprofit has little hope of increasing engagement and improving board fundraising results if board members don’t understand what is expected of them.

In the 2019 Board Engagement Survey, respondents felt one of the weakest areas of engagement for their board was understanding the board member role: “Lack of knowledge about how a board is to be run” was one response, along with “Diving too far into the minutia. We used to have too many board members without any management experience and they would give bad advice. That has changed,” and “Board members seem unsure of their role and lack experience.”

It is clear that more board member education is needed: 42 percent of respondents said their board has no expectation agreement for board members at all. I would recommend making ongoing board member education part of every board chair’s yearly agenda.

Second, board members need to understand what fundraising is and what it isn’t. Individual contributions are important, though just over half (52 percent) of boards require their members to make monetary donations. However, fundraising goes beyond the individual donation. Educating board members on the fundraising cycle can go a long way toward making them more comfortable and effective: There are five steps board members can engage in to help with fundraising: Identification, Qualification, Introduction, Solicitation, and Stewardship. All of these activities can increase fundraising or in-kind donations to further the organization’s mission.

While many people fear being rejected on the “ask,” and worry about their professional and personal reputations in the community, our survey showed tremendous willingness (59 percent) of board members to increase awareness of the organization and share the mission within their own networks. Board members invite guests to tour the nonprofit (47 percent) and ask their friends to buy tickets to fundraisers (49 percent) or volunteer at events (33 percent). By educating board members on how all of these actions are part of the fundraising cycle, they can gain confidence in their role in this effort.

Third, board leadership must look for ways to increase board productivity between meetings. Armed with the first and second recommendations, the next hurdle is to empower board memberd to get more done between meetings. Our 2019 survey respondents reported that communication was a major problem: Only 31 percent said that there was full-board communication between meetings, 64 percent said their board had no method of tracking to-dos or tasks between meetings, and 81 percent reported no dashboard or key metrics available to board members. On weak areas of board engagement, respondents wrote “Keeping all board members participating outside meetings,” and “Ongoing communication and tracking of activities and commitments made.”

Boards should work towards a rhythm of meeting preparation, followed by a meeting, then a recap of tasks and to-dos, next committee meetings and their reports, cycling back to meeting preparation. Establishing this cycle of productivity can fix the communication problem, but it is up to board chairs and executive directors to assess the best methods for communication with board members.

Advice to boards on how to engage donors can also be applied to board members. Get to know each board member and engage with him or her over time. Grab a cup of coffee or a meal together. Make sure they are invited to the organization’s events. In essence, cultivate the relationship. Find out what makes the person tick. What are his or her strengths and passions and what is the intersection of those passions with your organization? What motivates this board member to think of his or her goals between board meetings?

Empowerment Leads to Engagement and Better Fundraising

In my experience as a board member, board chair, and nonprofit founder, I’ve found that boards function most effectively when they feel empowered. All organizations expect their boards to make strategic decisions, but nonprofits rely particularly heavily on their boards for strategy and execution, especially around fundraising. Boards need the right tools and proper resources, but they also must feel empowered to use them. Empowerment correlates to competitiveness, both in finding the right board members and competing for funds: board members are more likely to join and be more active when the board is evidently empowered, when collaboration among empowered board members develop solutions together, rather than a board leader who dictates the solution.

Our research shows that most organizations have a considerable journey ahead of them to develop a truly philanthropic culture of engagement. Board members crave more communication, more participation from board members, and greater support in fundraising. But the common factor is engagement, and it should be the top priority of board leadership who wants to improve fundraising and the organization as a whole.

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