Is Your Board Hiding From Fundraising? 4 Tips for Improving Engagement

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By Cathy Allen

The executive director of the nonprofit was quite clear when she was recruiting me for the board of directors: Fundraising would be part of my responsibilities. This was written into the expectations document, and it was covered in my orientation by the board president.

Yet, I exempted myself in my own mind.

I figured I was too young, that I didn’t know anyone with money. I assumed I was being recruited for my experience with the state legislature. Surely, I rationalized, they just talked about fundraising to everyone. They couldn’t actually expect me to fundraise.

But they did.

About six months into my tenure, when the executive director asked how I’d like to proceed with my fundraising duties, I was stunned and a little panicked. I enjoyed this group, but fundraising terrified me. Fortunately, this particular executive director found it easier to invest herself in helping each of us learn the skills of fundraising than to do all the work alone.

Over the next few years, she included me in a variety of contacts with donors and potential donors—pushing me farther and farther out of my original comfort zone—until I was able to “make the ask” like a pro.

Fast forward 35 years, and now I work with nonprofit boards for a living. Nearly every week I hear from a stressed-out executive director who is struggling with lack of nonprofit board fundraising engagement.

Sometimes the expectations haven’t been made clear in recruitment and orientation. That’s easy enough to fix. But it seems that clarity around expectations by itself is not enough. As was the case with me, board members often convince themselves that all this talk about fundraising doesn’t apply to them. Sometimes they believe they have a special deal: “I agreed to serve on this board only on the condition I would not have to raise money.”

Here are some ideas that have worked for my clients for board fundraising engagement.

1. Deal with them as individuals.

Announcing at a board meeting or in a group email that it’s time for everyone to start selling tickets for the upcoming fundraiser is a recipe for failure and upset. Some board members might follow through, but most won’t, and it’s difficult to hold people accountable for not doing something they didn’t specifically agree to do.

The path to success is with individualized board fundraising engagement plans. These can be written agreements such as this example or handshake agreements based on one-on-one meetings, but each board member should be asked to commit to specific activities within the coming year to support your organization’s fundraising efforts.

If three board members agree to find sponsorships for the annual dinner, work with those three on sponsorships and find something else for each of the others.

2. Put time and energy into helping board members build their fundraising skills.

Fear of fundraising is common among board members, even if they don’t acknowledge it. Some people will absolutely step up and work outside of their comfort zone, even making an ask, but only if they feel sufficiently prepared.

Many options exist for skill building among board members including one-on-one mentoring like I had, making training available to board members on their own time, or setting aside time at board meetings or retreats for group training on donor identification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship techniques.

Investing a bit of effort in supporting board members as they learn and grow can pay huge dividends.

3. Start with stewardship.

I’ve met many board members over the years who announce to me that they will Never. Get. Involved. In. Fundraising.

It’s also true that I’ve never had one refuse to call a donor to thank them for their gift.

Even the most reluctant board member can be persuaded to handwrite thank you notes or put a personal note on a thank you letter. Ask them to make a special effort to attend a fundraising event to meet, greet, and thank the donors in attendance. Teach them how to use their own passion for the organization’s mission to help deepen the commitment of others. They might be surprised at how much they enjoy it.

4. Get them what they ask for.

If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a hundred times: Staff resist providing board members with the information they request, like data about people served or perhaps a stack of program brochures.

Yes, there are times when something isn’t available, but I recommend staff try extra hard to nurture any board interest in understanding something better. Try to avoid being the wet blanket that has all kinds of reasons why something can’t be provided. The board members know their social circle and what kind of information their contacts would respond to. Work with them on that.

I believe that part of every board member’s fiduciary duty is to ensure that the organization has sufficient resources to achieve its goals. If a board adopts a budget that relies on fundraising, then every member of the board should participate in some way.

This does not mean, however, that every board member should be required to solicit their connections or that traditional “give-get” requirements are always appropriate. The fundraising process is much bigger than the actual moment of solicitation. Getting board members engaged is therefore more about meeting them where they are than it is about squeezing them into a single channel. 

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