You Want Me to Do What? Thoughts on Engaging Boards in the Fundraising Process

by Kim Hawkins of member firm Raybin Associates

I sometimes think that the reason most Development professionals go to meetings like AFP is so they can complain about their Boards to peers who will understand what they’re talking about.  And when I’ve spoken at recent conferences – no matter the topic – the Q&A has become a discussion of how to get the Board to fundraise.  At the same time, I interview a lot of Board members in the course of my work.  Many report that they have told staff they’re willing to help with fundraising, but no one ever asks them to do anything.  This disconnect seems to be increasing – and increasingly worrisome.

There appear to be several factors at play here:

  • Organizations are enlisting Trustees who have not been involved in nonprofits before.  And many did not grow up in environments where they saw members of their families take on volunteer leadership roles in the community.  So they need some education from us.
  • Development staff are often not specific enough with Board members about exactly what fundraising tasks they want Trustees to take on.  “Go forth and fundraise” is not helpful direction to most people.  Equally unhelpful is “They’re just supposed to go raise the money.  I shouldn’t have to tell them what to do or how to do it.”   (Would they take that approach with their staff?  Or their children, for that matter?)

What I’ve learned after nearly 40 years in this business is that Board members’ greatest fear is that they will be expected to fulfill their fundraising responsibility by asking all their friends for money.  And that’s essentially what we’re asking them to do when we say, “Just go fundraise.”  It means, of course, that they will have to reciprocate in kind.  It can also feel to many as if it could compromise their personal and professional relationships.  It is realistic to expect that Trustees will introduce some of their friends to your organization, but it’s not reasonable to ask them to build your prospect base entirely from their rolodexes.

  • Many staff members have not had the experience of working in an organization where the CEO, the Board, and the Development Office genuinely partner in the fundraising process, so they have not seen just how powerful this can be.  In addition, we see growing pressure on staff to “make their numbers” (however that gets defined).  Engaging, training, and managing volunteers takes time and effort and, in the eyes of many a development professional, just slows things down.  “It’s faster and easier to do it myself,” is something we often hear.  I also suspect that some staff believe they will get less credit and recognition for a gift if they have to share the limelight with a volunteer.
  • Sometimes, the respective fundraising roles of staff and Board members are unclear.  The Board may think that since the organization is paying the Development staff such exorbitant salaries, they should be raising the money.  The staff expects that the Board should do it because that’s the way it’s supposed to work according to all the books.

The profession has done a good job of making the case for the value of Development staff and why they deserve what are typically among the highest salaries in many organizations.  But with that comes a set of expectations – about the work the staff will do and the results they will achieve.  What’s missing here is an understanding of development as a process, not a product.  Of course, Development departments must meet their financial goals.  But at the same time, organizations need to be building the kinds of relationships with donors and friends that ensure their commitment to the mission and the work and, hopefully, their long-term support.  So it is usually a mistake for the relationship to depend on a single Development professional.  Helping the Board understand this is part of the education process.

Recently, I had the very great pleasure of attending a blues concert at Lincoln Center featuring Eric Clapton and Wynton Marsalis (plus some other great musicians who are part of Marsalis’s Quintet).  Individually, they are some of the finest performers around.  But together, they created something altogether different.  At times, one would take the lead; at other times another would carry the melody line with support from the others.  It depended on the musical situation, but everyone had a mix of lead and background roles, no one of which was more important than the other in the creation of the larger piece of music.

Not so unlike fundraising.

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