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Karen Eber Davis

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How to Get Nonprofit Boards to Give

You might believe that asking board members to give a cash gift to your organization is too much. After all, your members promote your organization. They give oodles of time. They willingly offer expertise. Asking these generous members of nonprofit boards to give a cash gift is a bridge too far, right?

Unfortunately, this reluctance might hurt your organization. Most nonprofits need the cash. They need the donors. But who will give if board members don't set the example?

Besides the impact on charitable contributions to your organization, there is a governance issue: Your board’s decisions could be impacted. People decide differently when their money is involved.

Let’s look at what’s also happening here. You and your board designed a system that benefits you both. You don’t have to ask board members for money, feel guilty about asking for it, or risk irritating them. Your board gets to keep their cash.

Chances are, your board already has a standard about giving money. If it provides for optional giving, replace the existing standard with one where every board member makes a yearly cash gift. Below I share several tools that ingenious nonprofits leaders like you can use to create this standard.

Decide In Their Favor

By asking your board members to give, you do them a favor. Do you believe this? I mean really believe it? Behavioral economic research shows that giving gifts to others is one of a few actions that makes us happy. Giving gives back. People get more happiness from giving to others than buying bigger homes, new cars, or more stuff. Know that providing people the opportunity to give is not asking too much. It’s a gift.

Unconvinced by research? Make it personal. Take my Hundred-Dollar Challenge. Give a gift of twenty dollars to five worthy recipients from your personal funds each day for five days. Give where your gift will make a difference. For instance, place a twenty in a street musician’s cup. Send a check to a nonprofit. Insert another twenty into the mailbox of a neighbor experiencing financial difficulties. Buy coffee. Give the barista a twenty to pay it forward. You get the picture. Watch what happens. Notice your happiness?

It’s counterintuitive, but true. Giving changes lives—for the better—including the life of the giver. Receiving cash gifts from your board members begins with this mindset.

Herding Instinct for Nonprofit Boards: Help Me Belong

Another ingenious method to improve the giving standard of your board involves our herding instinct to belong. Since we desire to belong, we adopt the other’s behaviors. We constantly compare our behavior to that of the herd and seek to match it. The herding instinct is why, if you’re in high school, you must have a pair of Chucks this year. It’s why different children’s names become popular.

Even if you’ve never thought about it before, you use the herding instinct to help your nonprofit. To create a cash-giving standard, gently and thoughtfully “herd” your board members to make a yearly cash gift the expected behavior of the board. To visualize what this looks like, imagine a shepherd herding sheep with the help of several dogs. The shepherd gives instructions and begins to move. The sheep slowly follow. The dogs work at the edges and gently move (or not—some nip) the rest of the herd in the desired direction.

Find helpers willing to follow you and help get others to the new gift standard. Who or what might help you? For one, board members who already give. For another, foundations that inquire about board gifts in their applications. With few exceptions, what foundations mean by these questions is that requests from groups without a cash-giving standard are futile. Friends can also include videos, articles like this one, and other media that share the importance of yearly board cash gifts.

You don’t have to shout from the top of the hill to be a shepherd. You need to decide where the board needs to go and guide it. I asked Andy Kramer, Director of Development at Southeastern Guide Dogs, to rank his board on the one to one hundred scale in terms of helping to obtain donations. His immediate response was, “one hundred.” Andy explained, “If you aren’t giving and getting, you have to wonder if you ’re in the wrong group. Giving is contagious.”

Tips on How to Herd

How can you herd? It depends on your starting place. The next section offers several scenarios and recommendations for each.

If You Already Have Some Board Members That Give

The path is straightforward. To increase the percentage of givers, you might design an activity that creates one hundred givers with one swoop. For instance, ask a donor (helper) to make a major gift, but only if all of the board members give a gift, too. Also, you can create more gifts using one-on-one requests, i.e., “Audrey, would you be willing to fund a hundred dollars to see your new initiative? If yes, we could start it tomorrow.” People give because they are asked. One-to-one requests make the best asks.

Once your reach the 70 percent participation level, consider using an accountability chart. (This great idea comes from an event I attended years ago and whose leader I can’t recall.) The chart lists board activities, including attending meetings, committee leadership, and the like. Of course, it also lists cash gifts. Every board member receives a copy of the chart—with this very important caveat: instead of listing names, list members by code. Hand out the chart in sealed envelopes with the members’ personal information highlighted only on their sheet. Your sheet gives everyone the information they need to truly belong.

If You Have a Smattering of Board Gifts

Your task is harder if you only have a smattering of board gifts. In truth, if you are a CEO or development director, the board probably does not consider you a member of the herd. Requests from outsiders become ambient noise or, worse, blah, blah, blah.

Stop talking at board members. Work one on one instead. First, find helpers. Look amongst those who already give. Seek or create board champions who “get” the importance of giving. Don’t overlook the people who might have resisted initially, but participated later. One new board member grudgingly gave the required $500 donation the first year. Year two, he moved that the minimum be increased to $1,000. During subsequent years, he persuaded his fellow members to give larger and larger gifts until $10,000 became the standard.

No Gifts

If you can’t find a champion to promote board giving, your work’s cut out for you. But don’t despair!Find a bigger, different herd to join! One group did this by merging—which is, admittedly, extreme—with a board with a culture of giving.

Less extreme, but still effective, is claiming your membership in a bigger herd of successful nonprofits. Since you probably already talk about “other nonprofits” with wishful sighs, encourage your board to see your organization as about to join this wonderful herd. Bring your board information about the ways you’re already part of this herd. Also, share ways you need to grow. Will anyone on your board be surprised that all the nonprofits in your big new herd all have a standard of 100 percent board-member participation in making cash gifts? Probably not, but they will like being part of success.

How About We Start Tomorrow?

As you consistently shepherd your board, one day some members will announce that board members ought to make it the standards to make a yearly cash gift. Once it becomes “their” idea, your board’s ready to consider a future commitment.

A future commitment involves believing that something is desirable and making a promise to do it in the somewhat hazy future. You know this technique. You use it, for instance, when you promise your children you’ll go to Disney World—next year.

Let me illustrate the future-commitment technique with a story. Early in our marriage, my husband, while agreeable, was somewhat reluctant to become a father. I asked if he thought it was reasonable to have children in five years. He agreed. Five years and nine months later, our first son was born.

In the case of board cash gifts, you might respond to the suggestion of a yearly-cash-gift standard that has little chance of successful implementation by stating, “I agree cash gifts would be excellent. What do you think about informing all new board members about the expectation of a yearly cash gift? At the end of our term limits six years from now we’ll have a 100 percent participation.”


What might you do when you encounter holdouts? First, what’s a holdout? A friend refused to give to a federated giving campaign. She held out even when every other faculty member in her school gave. She said no “on principal.” My friend was a holdout.

Board giving is not a federated giving campaign decreed by someone else. Board members agree to serve. The boards create standards, in this case, yearly cash gifts. Holdouts who won’t give “on principal” aren’t good board members. Find ways to tap a holdout’s talents, but get this person off the board. While you might eventually change a holdout’s mind, face the facts. If after one full term you fail to persuade a holdout, you don’t have the time to keep trying.


Recruiting board members solely on the basis of their willingness to give a cash gift would be absurd. However, asking candidates about their attitudes about giving is informative and useful. In board interviews, include questions about their beliefs and experiences about giving. Inquire about personal giving and their experience as board members. Share your personal goal of 100 percent of board participation in a yearly cash gift. Explain that this standard will support the success of the nonprofit and be meaningful to each board member.

Set a Standard of Giving

A yearly cash gift from every board member is a proven best practice. The benefits your organization receives from these future gifts make your effort to create this new standard worthwhile.

As I’ve shown, you can change a board’s giving standard. Imagine the joy of writing in your future grant applications, “The board contributed over $200,000 during the last fiscal year. Every member gave. The gift range was from $1,500 to $25,000.”

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