Stephanie Cory, CAP, CFRE
How to Engage Board Members in Fundraising Productively
Engaging board members productively in fundraising is a common challenge. The emphasis is on productively. After all, our organizations do not need board members selecting napkin colors for a gala or organizing a restaurant night that raises $200. Our organizations need board members who truly embrace their role in fundraising and are engaged at an appropriate level.
It begins with education. Unless someone seeks out educational opportunities or readings, no one receives training on how to be a good board member. Much of the learning is through practice, and if someone learns the “how to’s” on a dysfunctional board, it’s more of a case of what not to do. Educating board members on fundraising expectations and how to help is critical to an organization’s financial success.
Encourage board members to participate in the variety of educational offerings available about board governance and fundraising. Look to your state nonprofit association, BoardSource, the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), and other resources for this education. These resources offer webinars, helpful articles, and in-person trainings. You could also consider bringing in an expert to conduct an in-house training for your board that focuses specifically on your organization’s needs. This is a more expensive option but one that will pay for itself over time as board members become engaged in fundraising.
Curating a board engaged in fundraising requires the right people on your board. This starts with recruitment. When recruiting a new board member, be upfront about your organization’s expectations for fundraising. Is there a minimum annual gift expected? Are board members expected to buy a table at a gala or a foursome at a golf outing? Are they expected to host events to introduce their networks to your organization? Are they expected to help with solicitations? The clearer you are upfront, the easier it is for those who do not want to be engaged to graciously decline joining your board.
In the real world, a bigger challenge than recruiting new board members with the right fundraising mindset is changing the mindset of existing board members—board members who may have been recruited without any fundraising expectations. What do you do about this constituency? Recruit a board champion. Maybe it’s your board chair or development committee chair, but it doesn’t have to be. It does have to be a board member.
Recruit a champion who understands the board’s role in fundraising and is willing to set a positive example for other board members and ensure they understand what is expected and how to help with fundraising. The change doesn’t happen overnight. It may take a few election cycles to allow for those who do not want to participate productively in fundraising to rotate off.
It’s important not to make exceptions for board members who refuse to participate in fundraising. Everyone can help in a way suitable for their personality and skills. The trick is educating board members on ways they can help and specifics for how to help. It’s not enough just to lay out expectations and hope they are fulfilled. Board members most likely have never been trained how to fundraise. They’re also probably scared that they will be asked to cold-call strangers and set up appointments to ask them for major gifts. You have to help them overcome these fears and equip them with the tools they need to be successful fundraisers.
If you’re not the CEO, get your CEO on board with productively engaging your board with fundraising as your first step. You can’t succeed in this goal without support from the top. The CEO needs to back you up when you and your board champion take steps to change your fundraising culture. The tone from the top is critical.
Specific Ways Board Members Can Help Fundraise
If you break down the steps in the fundraising process—prospect identification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship—it’s not all about asking for money. There are many ways board members can help with fundraising without making a single ask. Tell them this. It helps reduce anxiety.
Prospect identification is an easy way to introduce board members to fundraising. Can they introduce a specified number of their contacts to your organization? It can help to start with a small number of qualified prospects. You don’t just want a stack of random business cards. A good way to think about this to ask board members to brainstorm friends/colleagues/neighbors/etc. who seem like they might be interested in the cause and if they were interested enough could make a gift of $1,000 or more annually. Even this can sound daunting, but frame it as individuals who, if they absolutely loved your organization, could afford $83 per month. Everyone knows at least five people who fit this criterion. These are qualified prospects.
After your board members have identified who they can introduce to your organization, help make it easy for them to do the introduction and begin the next step of cultivation. Can you offer a preorganized tour? Help the board member organize a house party? Invite them to an existing event? Do what you can to help come up with ways to engage these new prospects other than just adding them to your mailing list. If the prospects do attend an event, be sure they are not ignored at the event or afterward. Engage them in conversation. Learn what they think about your organization.
In some cases, an event invitation as the first step in cultivation isn’t practical. In this case, board members can still help by making the introduction. For example, can they connect you to the right contact at their companies to discuss corporate sponsorships? Can they set up a coffee meeting for you with a prospect they know that you’d like to get to know better?
With cultivation it’s important to make sure board members are knowledgeable enough about your organization’s work to share your story with others. Coach them so they can articulate answers to the following questions:
- Why does your organization exist?
- What difference would it make if your organization went away?
- Why does your organization need donations?
- Where exactly does the money go?
- How many people are helped through your organization’s programs?
- Who is a typical member? Visitor? Program participant? Client? Patient? Donor? Volunteer? Etc.
While cultivation is a critical component of fundraising, it eventually needs to lead to actually asking for a gift: solicitation. In a perfect world, all board members would be involved in making in-person asks for major gifts. In the real world, it’s a rare board member who will do this. Can your board members accompany you on an ask, though? Can your board members sign personalized direct mail letters? Start small for easier wins and to allow board members to build confidence. Make sure other board members know who is stepping up. Have your champions share their success stories with other board members to encourage them to engage more.
Whether or not board members were involved in the solicitation that led to a gift, they can play an active part in stewardship. This is one of the least-scary ways to engage board members in fundraising. Have them make thank-you calls to donors or write personal notes of appreciation. It’s so much more meaningful for donors to hear from a board member or volunteer than from staff. Many donors are startled at first by a thank-you call, but the calls can turn into great opportunities to learn more about your donors.
If your organization hosts stewardship events, make sure your board is well represented. These events are a terrific engagement opportunity for both donors and board members. By connecting to donors, your board members will also feel closer to your organization and mission.
Prospect review is another aspect of fundraising where board members can assist. Show your board members the names of already identified prospects and find out if they know them. If they do, ask board members familiar with prospects the following questions:
- Do you know this person well enough to make an introduction?
- Could you ask this person for a gift?
- What is an appropriate amount for an ask?
- What is this person’s interest in our organization?
Board members may be in the position to share information that will inform your cultivation and solicitation strategies for prospects. For example, perhaps they know that a certain prospect is having a tough time personally and a solicitation should be delayed.
Gathering “intel” is a final way board members can participate productively in fundraising. Ask them to bring in annual reports, publications, and invitations they receive from other nonprofit organizations. Why? It will allow you to find out who is supporting other organizations and hopefully at what level. It will also allow you to determine what types of events other organizations are doing when and what they are charging for them. This is all helpful information.
Holding Board Members Accountable for Fundraising
Now that you have some ideas for how board members can and should be engaged in fundraising, how can you inject some accountability? Hopefully, your organization already has job descriptions for board members that specify what is expected of them—in terms of governance and fundraising. Yes, fundraising responsibilities should be included in the job description. At a minimum, there should be mention of supporting the organization with a personal gift and participating in/assisting with/etc. fundraising. Be as specific as you can without overwhelming the job description with fundraising responsibilities.
The importance of 100 percent board giving cannot be overstated. Funders expect this, and how can board members be authentic in soliciting others if they have not made their own gifts? If you have a minimum gift expectation, include it in the job description. If you don’t, still provide some guidance about the level of generosity you expect. If you expect board members to make your organization one of their top three philanthropic causes each year, spell it out. Don’t assume board members know how much to give unless you know they have been recruited with it made clear.
Remind board members of the job description and make sure they have a copy of it. Also make sure you ask board members to commit to specific ways they will support fundraising each year. This is where board members can select the ways they feel most confident helping. For some this could be making asks. For others, it could be helping with stewardship calls and visits. Encourage board members to stretch beyond their comfort zone, but don’t force everyone to help in the same ways. We’ve all seen what happens when volunteers are assigned tasks they’re not interested in or prepared for—the work doesn’t happen.
Ask your board members annually to commit in writing to how they will support fundraising. Research shows that we are more likely to follow through on our commitments if they are in writing and shared with others. Periodically check in with board members to see how they are progressing with what they agreed to do. At least a little gentle nudging is likely required to remind everyone of how they agreed to help with fundraising.
As you create your development plan each year, don’t forget to incorporate how your board members will be involved in fundraising. The plan should not just be a list of what paid development staff is doing. Assign tasks in the plan to specific board members with deadlines and measurements to increase accountability. Make sure you share the plan with the board to obtain buy-in and regularly update them on your organization’s progress on the plan.
Do you discuss fundraising at all your board meetings (other than when reviewing your income statements)? You should, and don’t always put it last at the agenda. For fundraising to receive the attention it deserves from a board, it needs to be front of mind and discussed regularly at a high level (remember, you don’t need help picking napkin colors at board meetings).
Productively engaging your board members in fundraising does not happen overnight. It takes time to shift the culture at your organization, particularly if you are starting from a baseline of no active participation or less than 100 percent board giving. Be patient and persistent. Don’t let initial resistance deter you.
When you do begin to see progress and board members are becoming engaged in fundraising, reward board members for even the smallest ways they support fundraising. A sincere thank-you goes a long way. Remember to share individual success with the board as a whole to motivate your more reticent members.
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