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Strengthening Your Board's Fundraising Muscle

Don’t "myth out" on your board’s potential! Let’s do some myth busting about non-profit boards and the expectations of nonprofit leaders.

True or False: Board members should be left alone to do their work — it’s not the job of staff to support them.

False! I used to think boards could accomplish more with a hands-off approach. But I also knew that volunteers should be supported by a paid member of your organization. So which is it?

An unintentional experiment tested that question. During a busy time of year for the staff, we had two board-hosted events: one salon received full oversight by a development coordinator, while another one had light staff support.

The first event could not have gone better. The host understood his role of inviting people who could become champions for the mission, and followed up personally.

The second event did not go as well. Trying to cram this cultivation gathering into a busy time of year backfired. The board host got frustrated and felt we had not used her resources effectively.

These two very different experiences made me a believer in hands-on board support. Board members, like all of us, appreciate having their efforts multiplied thanks to the coaching and legwork of others. And it yields better financial results too.

True or False: A board of directors should be full of high-net-worth individuals.

False! This myth can stop many highly motivated boards from realizing their fundraising potential. I’ve seen a dedicated team with modest resources pull in a treasure trove for their organization. After all, zealots can’t help themselves from sharing the powerful work of your organization with every friend, colleague, and relative they know.

And I’ve seen boards with an eye-popping list of wealthy executives fail to meet their fundraising goals. They had full bank accounts, but their passion wasn’t effectively directed.

Does it matter whether every board member has a lot of money? No! What matters is that they want to make connections and engage their networks in something that means a lot to them. They want to build a community of supporters and donors. And most individuals are only 1 or 2 degrees of separation from an individual who could make a meaningful gift to your organization.

True or False: Every board member should make a gift.

True! Finally, a true statement! Just remember a few things:

  1. It’s not the dollar amount that counts. It is the commitment to your organization. When a board invests their hard-earned resources to advance the mission, it cements their bond and makes them more effective as a team.

  2. Their gift is not solicited through a generic email blast. A best practice is to have the chair of the board meet with each board member at the beginning of the year to discuss their gift and other ways that this person can contribute to fundraising efforts. (Email me if you want a template for these meetings.)

  3. Board giving is not a moment in time, nor is it sprung on an individual six months into their first term. It is a strategically integrated element of board service, woven into the culture of the board and understood before any board member accepts their seat.

So what do these three true/false questions have in common?

They all show that fundraising is a muscle, and board members need executive directors and their teams to be their trainers. Here are 3 concrete practices you can put in place to so your board can punch above its fundraising weight:

  1. Start every year strong. Schedule a meeting for each board member with the chair and the ED at the beginning of the year. Ask for their annual gift, and also help them take on tasks they love in the larger universe of development, such as thinking of engagement opportunities or thanking donors. Make sure to track their participation to increase accountability throughout the year.

  2. Keep them up-to-date. Update board members regularly with their roles, responsibilities, and giving expectations. Tell them what’s happening with the cause, the organization, and the fundraising efforts in motion. The more aligned that you and your board are, the more you can pleasurably achieve together.

  3. Make it fun. Don’t skimp on building relationships amidst all the hard work. Schedule a dinner for the group. Give your board members occasional swag. (A board member once told me that his kids fight over the fleece vest we gave him). Celebrate the personal and professional milestones in their lives. When they feel more connected outside of the board room, they’ll work harder together to support your mission.

Like a great athletic coach, non-profit leaders and staff have to motivate their board members to build their fundraising skills, strength, and confidence. They should put the fun in fundraising (as Arthur Brooks put it) and generate an infectious, can-do attitude. The culture of philanthropy that you grow will stick with the organization beyond any individual board member’s term.


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