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Board members are there to help charities in a lot of ways. Even if they don’t always realize it, that includes helping gift officers raise money from wealthy donors. In the latest installment of our Ask an Expert series, we track down answers to reader questions about how to enlist board members in fundraising efforts.
David Chow, director of leadership gifts at Maine Public; Michael O’Neill, senior vice president of university advancement at Villanova University; and Rachael Rosselli, regional philanthropy officer at the American Red Cross of Massachusetts, provide the answers.
What is the best way to get board members to give more and open up their Rolodex to increase the donor pool?
— Executive director of an international education group
Board candidates should know from the outset of the recruiting process that trustees are expected to give generously and network on the organization’s behalf, says Rosselli. “If some of your current board members aren’t giving and recruiting, then you should consider having those who do make a development call-to-action at your next board meeting to inspire and motivate the others.”
She suggests inviting your group’s finance and development leaders to that meeting to reinforce the message with data, such as budget versus expenses and year-over-year giving trends.
“Shock them with statistics and share success stories of board members who’ve recruited a new major donor,” she says.
Then recognize those board members who have made transformative gifts. Your group’s executive director can follow up with “backseat” board members individually and ask how he or she can help them give more and recruit donors, Rosselli says.
O’Neill says his team has started to ask trustees to give them two “slots” per year when they will accompany an advancement professional on a visit with a prospective donor.
“We do not necessarily expect the trustee to solicit. What we do expect is that trustees will share what led them to the university, what led them to engage post-graduation, and what led them to serve and to give to their capability,” O’Neill says. “It is incredibly powerful.”
He says asking board members to open their Rolodexes or asking an open-ended question about who they know can put too much work on the volunteers and can limit the number of names they will share. Instead, he suggests providing small lists of potential donors you think they might know to help board members identify personal or professional connections. He recommends providing 20 to 50 names, listed by industry, location, social network, or other identifiers.
As for the trustees’ own giving? O’Neill says Villanova asks all board members to put the university at the top of their philanthropic priorities during their terms of service. “We recognize that each individual may have different financial capability,” he says. “But we ask that every trustee — regardless of financial wherewithal — have the same inclination.”
However, your board members are not going to give more or open up their networks if you can’t articulate your organization’s impact over the last year, says Chow. Make sure you can tell them about the adjustments your group made because of the pandemic.
If board members helped make the decisions or if they donated to make the changes, remind them of their input and support during that time and how valuable it was. Then, he suggests, ask them to help you share those successes across to their networks.
“Increased giving comes from understanding the impact of previous gifts,” Chow says. “If board members and the organization have made impressive impacts, then the invitation [to others] to give in a transformational way makes sense.”
Chow says board members aren’t going to increase their giving or help cultivate others in their networks unless the fundraiser has a clear understanding of what they want to accomplish with their philanthropy and with their connections.
He suggests fundraisers ask themselves whether board members are having the effect on the nonprofit they would like. If the answer is yes, then the fundraiser may be in a position to engage individual board members in a conversation about ways to support the organization by helping the fundraiser connect with like-minded friends and professional connections.
It’s important for fundraisers to create events in which board members can interact with the people in their networks, Chow says. Galas and luncheons aren’t possible right now — and even if they were, those events might not be the right fit for everyone. A more intimate “listen and learn” information session about the nonprofit’s work for a small group of board members and their guests might be a better approach right now and would allow for more feedback on a particular issue or future program.
I am the only staff person at our nonprofit. What’s the best way to ask for fundraising help from our board members, especially at a time when everyone is very busy?
— Executive director of a conservation group
“It’s part of their duty to advise development strategy for growth,” says Rosselli. She recommends scheduling time at your next board meeting or talking with board members individually to let them know you need help. “Honesty is the best policy in this case. Ultimately, your board members want to be successful and see the organization’s mission serve the community well. Lean into that notion.”
Chow suggests outlining where you could use help and taking stock of each board member’s expertise. Then, he says, talk to trustees individually.
“I’d avoid the group ask during a board meeting,” he says. “People don’t take personal responsibility in group settings, but when you’re asking one-on-one, you may get a more favorable response.”
If you’re part of a small shop — or if you are the shop — then chances are good board members understand the institution’s fundraising challenges, O’Neill says. They probably also know you well personally — and perhaps socially. Leverage those relationships, he says.
Some trustees have more time than others, so maximize that time and help them, O’Neill says. For example, if they identify potential donors, draft email communications to those donors for them and follow up on their behalf.
“Make it easy for their outreach to amount to something,” he says. “Get a quick win that would not have been possible without their involvement, then embolden, excite, and celebrate them.”
Trumpet the success as an example to the larger board, and work with other board members to do the same, O’Neill says. “Soon you will have board members who have become productively competitive among each other on behalf of your organization.”