Dear Nonprofiteer, What a challenge!

Dear Nonprofiteer:

I’m the development director of a good-sized social services agency.  (To say more would compromise my anonymity; and, while I’m frustrated, I still need this job.)  We’ve had considerable success in raising money from the government, as well as from foundations; and some success in attracting support from the local corporate community.

The problem is the Board.  Hardly any of them give, though most of them have substantial capacity.  (There are client representatives on the Board, too, but I don’t expect them to give–though some do, which puts us in the weird situation of having very poor people give more to the agency than very rich ones.)  We’ve had Board trainings; we’ve made speeches; we’ve talked one-on-one and in groups about the importance of Board giving.  We’ve even adopted a statement which says everyone should "give a gift significant to them" (this is designed to cover the fact that our clients don’t have any money, and the fact that there are members of the Board who could give $10,000 with no problem so we don’t want to let them off with a lower figure).  When we say it’ll be impossible for Board members to raise money if they don’t give money, the attitude among this bunch of deadbeats seems to be, "Good, then I won’t have to do any fundraising." 

Part of the problem may be that we have, as I say, done pretty well with corporations–including, though not limited to, ones at which our Board members work.  They seem to think that these corporate contributions count as their gift.  How can I get them to understand that what we’re talking about is a check graced with their personal signature?

Signed, Surrounded by Cheapskates

Dear Skate:

Oh, they understand all right–they’re just not planning to cooperate.  You’ve let them wiggle out of it so far (nobody’s been thrown off the Board for non-payment, right?), and they don’t see any reason why things have to change.  And your artfully-designed give-or-get statement just made things worse: apparently the "personally significant gift" language succeeded in pricking the conscience of your clients while failing to get the corporate types off their duffs.  [Note: If someone’s giving nothing, the fact that s/he could give $10,000 without flinching isn’t really relevant–no one, no matter how flush, starts off with a $10,000 gift.  Better to set a specific minimum–even $1000; even $500!–and enforce it, because once someone’s written that first check s/he’s likely to do it again, and nudging the number up doesn’t really take that long.] 

As I don’t need to tell you, your success with foundations is going to be short-lived if they don’t see that you have 100% Board participation; and at the moment you seem to have close to 100% Board participation in sloughing off.  [Another note: If you want to exempt clients from a give-or-get, just say that in the statement.  The clients know they’re poor, and you know they’re poor.  There’s no reason to pretend otherwise.]

But if you’ve managed to raise money from the government in this environment, you’re a pretty skilled fundraiser.  Given the right tools, you’ll find raising money from your Board a lead-pipe cinch. 

The tool of choice?  A challenge grant.  What do you have, 12 or 15 non-givers on the Board?  If you can find a single donor–Board or non-Board–who can be persuaded to give you $12,000 or $15,000, just match ’em up: the donor will give (whatever amount) when it’s matched by (whatever amount) of new money from the Board.  Details:

  • It doesn’t have to be a one-to-one match; you can say the challenger will give $10,000 as soon as the Board comes up with $20,000.  But the bigger the challenge gift, and the closer it is to the amount you want the Board to give–and the more easily it divides into the number of Board non-givers, or the total number of Board members, or some other relevant number–the better it will work.
  • It can be "new money from the Board" or "money from new givers on the Board" or both.  But make sure it’s "new," and that you don’t waste the challenge getting the annual $1,000 from your most faithful donor. 
  • Make it all or nothing.  Otherwise, a few people will give and you’ll pick up $3000 from the Board and $3000 from your challenger–a waste of capacity in both cases.  An all-or-nothing grant gets the Board’s blood pumping, and you get to keep reporting to them: "We’ve got $12,000; we’ve got $15,000; we’ve got $18,000!  Come on, we’re almost there!"  Nothing so concentrates the mind of a Board of Directors as the prospect of leaving money on the table, whereas if they know they’re going to get something (however small) they’ll settle for that.
  • Make it fast.  If it were earlier in the year, I’d tell you to make it a year-end challenge.  Maybe you can make it the end of the first quarter, or the end of the fiscal year on June 30, or the date of the big benefit (though beware: you don’t want to cannibalize what you’re already getting from the benefit).  In any case, don’t let it drag on–it’s exciting for a while, and then it becomes a grind.
  • Make it anonymous.  Especially if your challenge donor is a member of the Board, you don’t want to put his/her credibility on the line.  It sounds like a good way to make people give, but it’s actually just a good way to make them resentful.  Whereas people don’t mind ponying up for Secret Santa.
  • As for finding your challenge donor, which I’ve tossed off as if it were nothing: remember that givers love this kind of opportunity to foster other giving.  They’ll give more for a challenge than they would as a regular gift–both because the process is less lonely than solo giving and because offering a challenge makes them feel they’re helping you build for the future and not just tossing money into a bottomless pit of need. 

A challenge grant is a kick-start; in future years, these people will have to get out their checkbooks all on their own.  Or someone else may be inspired to do a challenge–one of them, even!–and the new money will just keep growing.

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2 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, What a challenge!”

  1. glf Says:

    We were in the same position six months ago and a challenge does work. Went from having 30% of our board give to 100% in two months.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Glad to hear it. As a participant in a similar challenge remarked, “Did they give what they are capable of giving?
    No. But they finally wrote out a check which is a HUGE first step.”

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