Dear Nonprofiteer, How do I turn Board generosity into Board requests for generosity?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I’m the ED of a growing nonprofit doing bridge-building work on a highly divisive social issue. Our work is getting rave reviews. Our Board, however, is really struggling with its role in fundraising.

All of the nonprofit literature I’ve read says that the Board of Directors is largely responsible for raising funds for the organization, and that they typically do this through their own individual contacts and influence. But everyone on our Board was chosen for their commitment to our cause and understanding of the sensitive nature of our work, not for their contacts or influence. They’re wonderful, passionate people, but they have no fundraising experience and no wealthy or influential contacts to speak of, and they’re all geographically separate from one another. When fundraising comes up in Board meetings, everyone agrees that it must be done, but no one is sure what exactly they can do.

Our Board does have a “give or get” clause, and our Board members meet and surpass that requirement by giving generously of their own money. There’s no question of their devotion! But I’m concerned that relying too heavily on our Board members’ personal finances rather than external fundraising is a dangerous long-term proposition, and I feel like we could be doing so much more if we had a real fundraising strategy. (We have been raising other funds, but those projects have been primarily overseen by our staff.)

What say you? Are there situations where a nonprofit Board shouldn’t focus on fundraising? Or do we need to rethink things?

Signed,

Empty Pockets

Dear Empty,

Of course the people you recruited to your Board were chosen for their passionate commitment to your cause–who else would you choose for such a task? That doesn’t mean they can’t raise funds; in fact, it means they’re the people best positioned to raise money for the group, because they understand it so profoundly and can speak about it with such depth and conviction.

And they’re going to be especially wonderful fundraisers because they’re so generous themselves. Many agencies struggle with fundraising because the Board thinks someone else should put money on the line while its own members fail to do so.

But Board members have to take on the fundraising task, and there are no exceptions–not for particular kinds of organizations, nor for particular Board members whom others may think can’t afford to be involved. There’s a misconception floating around the nonprofit world that fundraising can only be done by certain kinds of people, ones with those mysterious “contacts” and “influence;” when in fact, everyone can identify prospective donors, everyone can ask, and everyone can thank.

Here’s how you get started: bring to the next Board meeting a list of five prospects whom the staff has identified through your fundraising activities to date–the people you think are most likely to be convertible into serious major donors alongside your Board members. Then divide your Board into pairs and get each pair to contact one of these small-givers-who-are-big-givers-in-waiting. The pair should take the prospect out to lunch and ask him/her for money.

How? Please see the Nonprofiteer’s never-fail luncheon ask. And, because everyone you’re dealing with is so new to this activity, spend the rest of this Board meeting practicing the never-fail ask, doing in 10 or 20 minutes what in the real world you’ll do in 60. You practice by dividing the Board into groups of three, and then having two people ask the third; the second time, you have the prospect join the asking team.

Stay on your Board members between Board meetings to assure they actually take the prospects out and ask them for money, and then have them report back at the next Board meeting. Also tell everyone to come to that next Board meeting with the name of one–one!–person they know whom they can persuade to come to lunch to talk about your agency. Reassure them that they’re not going to be required to ask their friends for money–they’re going to ask EACH OTHER’S friends for money. You can practice that at this second Board meeting.

Then keep noodging and supporting them, but let there be no doubt that this is the main thing with which they should occupy themselves now. No matter how passionate–for that matter, no matter how rich!–no Board is able to support its agency single-handedly through its personal wealth. Fundraising is essential; it’s the job of the Board; and if the people you’ve got now refuse to do it (which the Nonprofiteer doubts), go get some people who will.

And if the guidance the Nonprofiteer has just molded into a brick and thrown at your head seems daunting, hire a Board development consultant [like, say, the Nonprofiteer; but plenty of people do this] to come in and train your Board–and read the fundraising Riot Act to its members, if need be. Often Boards will hear from a consultant what they won’t hear from their employee/Executive Director, namely, that they have a clearly-defined job; that the name of the job is “fundraising;” and that they have to do it.

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2 Responses to “Dear Nonprofiteer, How do I turn Board generosity into Board requests for generosity?”

  1. Empty Pockets Says:

    This is really helpful. Thank you!

    Just a follow-up, though… I mentioned that our Board is geographically separate. What I neglected to clarify was that they’re spread out across the country, in different states, and that we have our board meetings via teleconference. Unfortunately, this makes the “luncheon ask” very difficult, since no two board members live in the same area to be able to invite someone to lunch, and the majority of our donors live in still other parts of the country with no board member near them.

    Is there another method you might recommend for situations like that? Having two board members call a donor on the telephone seems like it would carry a very different message from asking someone to lunch.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      You’re right–a conference call is not at all a satisfactory substitute for a fundraising lunch. The only way to handle this is to set a travel budget and have a staff member fly to, and accompany, the local Board member to lunch. Then the staff member does the ask. It’s not as good–if a staff member asks, it’s almost as though she’s begging for her own salary–but it means you’ll be able to take advantage of the local Board member’s contacts without requiring him/her to strong-arm close friends for money. As a longer-term strategy, you might also consider identifying Board prospects in the cities where you already have Board members, so that each city has a couple-three people who can share fundraising tasks. With a Board this scattered, you need be less concerned about over-filling the Board, and more concerned about having Board members feel isolated; a colleague in the same city with whom to fundraise and chat will be helpful to your current Board members.

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