Dear Nonprofiteer, I wouldn’t belong to a Board that would have me as a member

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I’m on the Board of a small animal shelter.  There are only 4 of us on the Board and, though it’s a small agency, we think there should be more.  But none of us has any connections or knows anyone with money; and when I think about trying to attract Board members I run up against the fact that we’re not a prestige cause.  In fact, animal welfare is probably at the very bottom of most people’s list of priorities–agencies that serve kids touch the heart more, while arts groups are more glamorous.  How can I persuade anybody to be involved with us instead?

Signed, Step-sister at the Ball

Dear Step-sister:

As a very wise colleague of the Nonprofiteer’s once said about disease charities, "The most losing game you can play is ‘My disease is worse than your disease.’  Fundraising is not a competitive sport."

Board development isn’t a competitive sport, either, though every agency is firmly under the impression that every other agency has the inside track.  The arts groups are sure the schools attract all the serious money; the schools are sure it’s the hospitals; and the social service agencies complain their adult clients aren’t as appealing as kids–or animals.  But here’s the point: your task isn’t to persuade someone that your mission is more important than children, or theater.  Your task is to find people who share your view that animals are very important–and there are plenty of those.

[There’s a certain satisfaction to be derived from the "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers" feeling that only you and your small group stand between your clients and disaster.  But that’s not an attitude that promotes inclusiveness, which is the mind-set you need right now–even to attract just a few more.]

How to find them?  Well, first you have to give up the idea that "none of us has any connections."  Everyone has connections: people they work with, people they go to church with, people they do business with, people they bowl with.  You’re all (by hypothesis) pet owners, so you probably have people you encounter walking your dogs; you have veterinarians; you have pet-store owners.  Sit down with the other three Board members and just talk through who you all know who loves animals.  For the moment, don’t worry about money or prestige; just make a list.

Then take a break and figure out exactly what you’re going to ask these people to do.  (See You Identify the Problem . . . for the Nonprofiteer’s quick take on what NOT to say.)  At the jump is a sample document suitable for handing to prospective Board members, but here’s the only thing that absolutely positively has to be included: a specific dollar amount you expect the Board member to give.

There are two reasons for this, though many people bridle at it: first, people would rather be told what’s expected than guess at it.  Second, because once you pick the actual number (and note that $500 a year is a medium Starbuck’s five days a week, a sum most middle-class people can pay–if not in a single chunk, then in installments) you’ll discover that the universe of people "with money" is suddenly larger.  You’re no longer talking about mythical "rich people"–Bill Gates, Oprah–but about people who can squeeze out $500 in a pinch over the course of a year, which is to say, people all of us know.  (Of course, you can’t ask people to do this unless and until you’re willing to do it yourself–but of course you are.  Right?)

So: identify people who love animals; then decide what you want from them.  Then ask them out to lunch and use the meal to describe that to them.  (The Nonprofiteer recommends using the good-cop bad-cop strategy, two current Board members on one prospect.  One of you talks about the agency in rhapsodic terms; the other goes point by point through the list of responsibilities). 

Here’s the key thing to remember: no matter what the cynics tell you, people don’t really join nonprofit Boards for prestige, or for business promotion, or for any other self-serving reason.  They join for the same reason you did: to contribute time and expertise as well as money to a cause they care about, and to join a community of like-minded people. 

Will every person approached this way say "yes"?  No–but if they don’t, it won’t be because you didn’t appeal sufficiently to their self-interest.  It will be because they have other commitments which would prevent them from giving the shelter the energy it deserves, or because you misjudged the extent to which animal welfare moves them.  But every person you approach with this clear statement of the agency’s nature and purpose (and how you think they’d fit in) will be impressed by your level of organization and clarity about your mission, and will know more about the shelter than they did before–which can only be a good thing.  Even those who decline your invitation to join the Board may offer to give you money, or have other ideas of ways they can support the shelter. 

And remember: if no one ever says "no," you’re not asking often enough.

SAMPLE RECRUITING HANDOUT: Responsibilities of Board Members

[STRONG 1- OR 2-SENTENCE DESCRIPTION OF AGENCY’S PURPOSE HERE: "We save animals by operating a no-kill shelter."]

Board members:

1. Attend monthly Board meetings to review [agency]’s operations and chart its future.

  •    Board meetings allow the Executive Director to report on current
programs and plans. They are also an opportunity for Board members to
report to one another on the progress of Board projects, such as the
planning of fundraising events.  Most important, they are the forum at
which the Board decides what the [agency] will do next.  To maintain
the [agency]’s financial health, the Board uses part of each meeting to
compare actual revenue and expenses to revenue and expenses as shown in
the budget, making whatever modifications in activity may be necessary
to keep these aligned.

   
•    Board members decide what the [agency] does and how it does it.
Because of the importance of these activities, the Board is entitled to
ask for the resignation of any Director who misses three consecutive
meetings.

3. Participate in the planning and execution of occasional fundraising events.

   
•    This includes helping to persuade businesses and individuals to
donate necessary items to events, and persuading individuals and
businesses to buy tickets to and attend the events.  All Board members
should also plan to attend the events themselves.

     •   
Board members are the group’s “ambassadors” to the community; your
enthusiasm for the [agency], and your willingness to introduce new
people to its work, are essential to its future.

4. Make a personal contribution of at least $500 to the [agency] each year.

  •    A Board member may arrange to have someone (e.g. an employer)
make
this donation on his/her behalf; but this cash gift is over and above
any other contributions the Board member may solicit on behalf of the
[agency].  It’s also over and above any in-kind contributions or
services the Board member may supply to or secure for the group.   

   
•    This personal gift is the beginning rather than the end of a Board
member’s responsibility for raising money.  Though we have no minimum
“get,” every Board member participates in identifying, cultivating and
soliciting prospective donors.

5.
Adopt and monitor execution of a budget, fundraising plan and overall
income strategy which guarantees the [agency] has the resources to
fulfill its mission and carry out its program. 

     •   
Though not every member of the Board will serve on the Fundraising
Committee, or on the planning committee for every fundraising event,
every member of the Board will review and adopt the group’s fundraising
plan and help assure that it is carried out.

6. Serve on at least one Board committee. [If you don’t have committees yet, be prepared to create some as soon as you’re done with this round of recruiting.]

   
•    Board committees include
Fundraising (which creates the annual fundraising plan and monitors the
progress of its implementation), Finance (which monitors the budget and
cash flow situation) and Board Development (to identify, recruit and
train new members of the Board).  Task forces may also be formed as
needed for particular projects.

7. Take responsibility for meeting the agency’s legal obligations and supervising staff members in doing so.

   
•    The [agency] files annual reports with the state and the Internal Revenue Service, and the Board must make sure
this is done timely.  Naturally, as the [agency]’s “owner,” the Board
will also assure that the agency abides by all other laws.  “The buck
stops here.”

Time commitment: You can expect to spend between 5
and 10 hours each month fulfilling these responsibilities, including
preparing for and attending Board and committee meetings.  In addition,
you can expect to take on individual responsibilities–meeting with
prospective donors, planning and conducting events–that will require
extra time.

Board terms: Board members are elected for [#]-year
terms.  [If
you don’t have Board terms, create them.  People will agree to do
something for 2 or 3 years more readily than they’ll agree to do
something forever, which is what it sounds like if you don’t specify a
time period.]

                   Benefits of Board Membership

Why would anyone take on the responsibilities we’ve just listed?

[WRITE SOMETHING IN THE FOLLOWING FORMAT OF PROGRAMS/ACTIVITIES/SKILLS:]

   
•    Because they care about the enhancement of animal life in our community through programs like

          Spay and neuter  . . . .

  •    Because they’re committed to animal welfare and think the
shelter’s programming makes an important contribution to overcoming
our community’s neglect of animals.

     •    Because they
value the opportunities [agency] creates to bring animal lovers together across all sorts of social and cultural divides into
environments where commonalities can be recognized while differences
are respected.

     •    Because they have skills–-in planning
events, in publicizing, in computers or budgets or whatever–-that they’d
like to use on behalf of a good cause.

     •    Because they
have talents–-again, in events or publicity or fundraising–-that their
jobs don’t use and that they’d like to develop.

     •    Because they have connections with
other communities–-ethnic, professional, geographic-–which might benefit from interaction with the work of the [agency]. 

  •    Because they’d like to meet and spend time working with other
people who share their passion for public service in general, animal
welfare in particular, and the work of the shelter most especially.

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5 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, I wouldn’t belong to a Board that would have me as a member”

  1. Alanna Says:

    I just bookmarked this page because I know it’s going to be useful for me. I’ve learned a LOT about nonprofits from reading this site.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    I’m glad it’s proving useful. If you have any specific questions of your own, please write “Dear Nonprofiteer,” either by sending an e-mail or posting a comment. Thanks for reading!

  3. Chris Casquilho Says:

    I’ll play the devil’s advocate and assert that attracting qualified, dedicated board members who are willing to cope with the increasing complexity and scrutiny required by the sector is going to get harder and harder; ergo, the NPs that thrive and adroitly achieve their mission objectives will be the ones that can successfully compete for and win dynamic, connected, resourceful board members. There is a limited supply of these folks in any community, and many NPs will be courting them. If they’re really good candidates, they’ll only serve on a board or two at time – often for five or ten years.

    Yes, board members must be dedicated to your cause – but if you can’t develop a board that has the horsepower to govern a lean, agile NP and provide the necessary funding, you’ll always feel that nagging frustration that dogs so many NPs with typical boards.

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Chris: I don’t know why it should get harder to recruit nonprofit Board members than it’s ever been, especially not now that the Baby Boomers are starting to retire. They/we’ve got money and leisure and a desire to use both in a meaningful way, and those–plus a little training–are all you need to be a good Board member. Again, unless you think being “connected” means owning the town bank and being married to the town doctor, there’s no reason to think there’s a limit to the number of “connected” people available who can be useful to your cause.

    It’s no service to the nonprofit sector to act as if public-spiritedness is in short supply. Are there only a few Bill Gates-es?–sure. But most nonprofits don’t need Bill Gates: they need 4 or 5 people with middle-class resources and a belief that the work of the agency really matters. And the only nonprofits I’ve ever worked with that have been unable to find those people are the ones wedded to the notion that theirs is a club of which no one wants to be a member.

  5. neilward Says:

    I’m utterly baffled by the idea of asking board members to pay to sit on the board of a non-profit. There are a huge number of ways of raising funds, and this is the daftest one I have yet to encounter!

    You’re looking for board members to add expertise and energy to your board, not to milk them for a few bucks…

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