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Ellen Bristol

About Ellen

The Nonprofit Board’s Five Primary Fundraising Roles: Part One

Some boards, and some board members, are ready to take on the role of direct solicitation and cultivation of donors, while others are nowhere near ready. There are some organizations that want their board members to raise money, and others that don’t. But all boards need to consider five possible roles in fundraising and decide which is “right” for them.

So, what are a board’s five fundraising roles?

  1. Set fundraising targets
  2. Monitoring fundraising outputs and achievements
  3. Offer guidance on priorities
  4. Leverage connections
  5. Raise money for the organization

This is the first part of a two-part article discussing these five fundraising roles. In Part One, we cover the first three.

When the board meeting agenda turns to fundraising, board members may get a little uncomfortable. Why? Because they know that one of these days, if not today, somebody’s going to ask them to raise some money. And lots of people just hate, fear and freeze up when they’re asked to do so. But the board needs to be involved in the fundraising effort somehow, doesn’t it?

I believe the answer is YES, the board needs to be involved in fundraising. But first, allow me to define what I mean by “board involvement.” For sure it is not being fair to your board (or if you serve on a board, you are not being fair to yourself), when involvement in fundraising only means “go out and browbeat your friends into writing a check.” Ugh. I won’t do that either. There are better ways.

Boards really need to put some effort into defining their roles. They need to collaborate, so they can agree on what their fundraising role should be, and then implement that new role. I like to think that the board’s primary job is that of governance, which means setting direction, exercising leadership, holding the CEO or Executive Director accountable, and exercising fiduciary responsibility over the money. Figuring out how the board can accomplish such strategic objectives is therefore “Job One.” And I believe that the very next job needs to be fundraising. And since fundraising covers a lot of territory, the board is always well-advised to figure out this fundraising role, and discuss it regularly.

Role #1: Set Fundraising Targets

Role #1 is the lowest level of fundraising involvement for the board. It is highly strategic. At this level the board participates in setting goals and objectives for income, making sure that the operations of the organization are being funded adequately and properly. Somebody needs to create the marching orders, with a realistic operating budget and projections for income for the future. Whether you serve on the board of an all-volunteer organization, or the institution is large and has a big professional staff, a classic and valuable role for the board is to participate in setting fundraising targets.

While it’s usually the staff’s job to prepare a budget, the board needs to oversee that budget, considering whether adequate funds have been allocated for all the right things. Sometimes staff either overlooks key expenditures (such as the cost of fundraising), or understates them (such as the cost of designing and maintaining necessary technology). The board can contribute by having a “big picture” view of what is needed to fund operations at desired levels of capacity, challenging line items that seem to be over- or under-estimated, and otherwise bringing a more objective point of view to the budgeting process.

The board need not become micro-managers, looking over the staff’s shoulders trying to save a few bucks here and there on office supplies. But it IS the board’s job to collaborate with staff in order to define fundraising goals that satisfy operating requirements, and that everyone can live with. Board members are likely to have a broader perspective since they act more as advisors and less as staff. So their perspectives on the amount of money being raised, and how that money is allocated, can be a wonderful contribution and an important part of their role at this level.

Role #2: Monitor Fundraising Outputs and Achievements

The board’s Role #2 represents a slightly higher degree of involvement, but still doesn’t require that individual board members go out and “make the ask.” This focus area is directly connected with the board’s general fiduciary role. Rather than being the passive recipients of a boring fundraising report, board members should review progress against the fundraising plan regularly, at least once a month, scrutinizing the delta between “planned” and “actual” results. A monthly review is just often enough and not too often. After all, out of sight, out of mind. It’s too easy to lose focus and motivation if you review progress quarterly or (even worse) annually. A monthly review provides enough insight for the board to recommend course corrections and observe their impact. If the board doesn’t meet monthly, then it would be wise to create a committee to conduct a monthly review. These reviews can be handled by web or telephone conferencing techniques, if needed.

Remember, the board’s governing role includes accountability, namely holding the executive director, and itself, accountable for achieving the organization’s goals and objectives. Provide a way for the board to monitor progress against the fundraising plan, and your board will have in place one way to exercise such accountability—based on realistic, timely and accurate information.

Role #3: Offer Guidance on Priorities

Thisboard role is yet another step closer to full involvement in fundraising. While the board is monitoring outputs and achievements, they are in an excellent position to re-assess funding priorities. (Sometimes staff members are too close to the daily grind to see the forest for the trees.) The board is in a good position to evaluate the mission-impact and/or achievements of various programs and services. For example, maybe Program A is losing its relevance even though the organization continues to fund it at a high level, while Program B could serve many more people, but it has been under-funded for several years. These are the sorts of issues the board can bring to light.

Board members, thanks to their varying perspectives and expertise, can provide differing insights on the best uses for the institution’s money. Discussions about funding priorities enhance the board’s governance role, and can provide an opportunity to raise the level of collegiality and mutual respect between the board and staff.


When it comes to the board’s role in fundraising, there is no single answer—and no easy answer either. It behooves every nonprofit board to collaborate on defining that role, upholding their mutual decision and commitment, and staying focused on the desired results.

In Part Two of this series I will discuss the fourth and fifth roles of the board in fundraising: leveraging connections and raising money for the organization. I will also discuss a bit about the ever-terror-provoking words: give-or-get policy.


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