It’s always interesting to ask a development manager or executive director, “How’s your board at fundraising?” Because they almost all make the same sound:
What’s the deal? Board members are some of the most generous, dedicated volunteers your organization has. They personally take fiduciary responsibility for your organization—practically the definition of a vested interest in your success!
And still, many organizations find, the board won’t fundraise. At best, they drift along, only doing the bare requirements. At worst, they flat-out refuse to do anything, and then wonder why the staff doesn’t get better results.
Why won’t they fundraise? Is there a way to get them to commit to raising money?
First, let’s review your nonprofit board members’ responsibilities.
All nonprofit boards are the financial stewards of their organizations, acting as its fiduciary. They’re responsible for the governance of the organization. Their responsibilities fall into three major categories: Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty, and Duty of Obedience.
Essentially, these duties mean the board is responsible for ensuring that the nonprofit uses its resources appropriately. That includes monitoring activities that advance the mission and that it is following all laws, including its own bylaws.
And of course, the board has a responsibility for fundraising. They’re usually expected to make a personal contribution, and many organizations have a “Give/Get” requirement. It’s a number of dollars a board member is expected to donate or raise.
After that, board activities will vary depending on the organization, how much staff it has, and how the board is organized. Some boards are very hands-on with day-to-day operations, particularly if the organization is all volunteer. Once a staff is in place, the board generally cedes day-to-day management to the executive director they’ve hired, and focuses on general oversight.
If you’re dealing with a board that doesn’t fundraise, you may be tempted to work around them. Many staff members develop an unhealthy, or even adversarial, relationship with the board. “We’ll just keep our heads down and get things done, and involve the board as little as possible,” they say.
This is a mistake. Unless your board is exclusively made up of toxic monsters (and then you have a different problem), working around them is actually working against yourself. There are things board members can do for fundraising that staff members can’t.
Boards are often capable of great, generous things, like:
Don’t miss out on this potential generosity by writing them off. It’s worth it to try to engage them more in fundraising.
It’s easy to moan, “My board members won’t fundraise!” but it’s more useful to try and figure out why. Are they nervous? Do they understand their responsibility? Are they willing, but waiting for instructions?
Once you know what the problem is, it’s much simpler to find a solution.
Some of the common reasons board members don’t fundraise include:
When you talk about fundraising, it’s entirely possible your board members are picturing cold-calling their friends and asking for money or sitting down with strangers and making a pitch. It’s understandable that this would make them nervous.
Acknowledge their nerves, and reassure them that they don’t have to do anything they’re not ready to do. Instead, steer them towards activities like thanking donors, making introductions, and other non-ask fundraising activities. As they get more comfortable, they may find themselves willing to make an ask, but if that never happens, they’ll still be engaging in essential fundraising activities.
They may have no idea of what fundraising would involve. Telling them to fundraise is like asking them to steer a submarine, or perform surgery — where would they even start? Since they don’t know what to do, they don’t do anything.
Fundraising education can turn these board members into confident fundraisers. Share relevant fundraising resources and articles with them. Devote a few minutes at each board meeting to fundraising tips and invite interested members to go to trainings with you, or on their own. Build board preparation into your campaign schedule before you launch. Give them opportunities to practice, role-play and ask questions.
“Fundraising isn’t my job, that’s why we have development staff,” they may think. It’s entirely possible to end up on a nonprofit board without understanding that you have a fundraising responsibility. This seems impossible to nonprofit professionals, but I see it all the time.
Even if they understand they’re supposed to raise or contribute a certain amount, they might not understand the bigger picture of their role as an ambassador for your organization. One of the assets that board members bring to the table is their social network. If board members simply write you a check for their “Give/Get,” you’re missing out on these connections.
Establish expectations for board members and spell out their responsibilities during your onboarding process for new board members. Make sure you’re very clear about fundraising. Explain that you have deep gratitude for their contributions, but really hope they’ll also advocate for your organization within their networks.
It’s likely your board members are busy people. Whether they’re retired or working, the movers and shakers who join nonprofit boards usually have full calendars. They may not have a lot of time to devote to fundraising, especially if they think fundraising means “chair a fundraising event.”
Make fundraising as easy as possible by creating tools for them to use, like text they can copy and paste or sample letters. Offer a range of fundraising tasks that fit into various schedules. Let board members choose the tasks they feel they have time to complete, even if they’re small. Any engagement in fundraising is better than none.
Once you’ve removed some of the common barriers to board fundraising, you may find that most of your problems are solved. If you’ve helped your board get more comfortable, given them some fundraising training, established expectations and made fundraising easy, they may be on their way to becoming a fundraising powerhouse.
Of course, they may still look to you to take the lead. They may be abler, but not exactly excited, to fundraise.
To make fundraising more appealing to your board members:
Some board members, particularly retired ones, will be excited to use their professional expertise for your organization. They may see it as their unique contribution to the board, the reason they’re there.
But others, especially those who are still working full-time in their fields, will want to try something else. Don’t assume that the accountants only want to be on the finance committee or the marketing professionals want to design all your campaign materials.
Ask each board member to consider how they’d like to be involved. What sounds like the most fun to them? What would they really be excited to work on? This can head-off burnout and invigorate your board.
How are you making your fundraising pitches? Is introducing a new campaign just another item on the board meeting agenda? Borrow from the for-profit world, and add a little drama when you roll out a new idea. Make it an actual presentation, with visuals, handouts, and some flare.
Sometimes board members have trouble picturing how something would work. If you do a short walk-through of your fundraising software or show them a timeline of your capital campaign, they’ll have an easier time getting excited.
Make sure you’re presenting fundraising in a positive light. If you’re treating it like a trip to the dentist, no wonder people aren’t excited. Let your own enthusiasm set the tone.
Many board members, especially if this isn’t their first time on a nonprofit board, will have seen a failed fundraising campaign. They may be hesitant to commit to a new fundraising initiative because they’re not convinced it will work.
Use your donor data to reassure skeptical board members. Show them how the data informs your strategy, and explain why you’re proposing a technique or activity. You’ll break down resistance to newer modes of fundraising if you can point to hard data that suggests they’re a good bet.
Donor data gives board members a more complete picture of your fundraising. Even something as simple as pointing out that a high percentage of your donors give online, and follow you on at least one social media platform, makes a case that peer-to-peer fundraising is likely to succeed. Comparing donor data year-over-year can show board members that something is a trend you need to jump on, rather than a fluke.
The more you can turn fundraising into a two-way conversation with your board, the more involved they’ll become. People tend to feel more responsible for the initiatives they proposed themselves. Create opportunities for board members to share their own fundraising ideas.
Whether it’s adding a short brainstorming session to every meeting or dedicating a meeting a year to fundraising, solicit their ideas. It’s an opportunity for them to take ownership of fundraising, and invest more personally in promoting your organization.
Certainly, you won’t use every idea, but asking can turn up some gems you never would have considered. Maybe a board member has a beautiful garden he’d be willing to host a small garden party for major donors in. Someone’s professional association might be looking for a nonprofit partner to raise money for. Perhaps everyone wants to cancel your gala and replace it with something with lower stress and a higher ROI. “Why wouldn’t they just tell me that?” you may wonder. Sometimes people are waiting to be asked.
When your board members are excited and committed to fundraising, everyone wins. They feel good about their contributions, and your organization can flourish. For more ideas about getting more buy-in from your board members, check out our webinar, Engage Your Board In Fundraising.
Traditional fundraising strategies no longer work. This blueprint explains why today's donor expects more, and how nonprofits are shifting to responsive fundraising.