The Trustee’s Role in Fundraising: Four questions every nonprofit board member should ask

by Ted Grossnickle and Angela White of member firm Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates

At JGA, our experience as advancement officers at private colleges and Ted’s role as a campaign co-chairman and trustee for his alma mater gives us a unique position as we advise our clients on introducing a campaign to their trustees.

We have a perspective as a staff member, a trustee and a volunteer in addition to that of a consultant.

It’s not that they are mutually exclusive. They’re not. But they are different.

Certainly you want a consultant to be objective- even dispassionately so. However, you want your staff,  trustees and chairs to be passionate about the cause.

Both perspectives are required for success in a campaign. It is the blend of those two ways of looking at strategy that allow us to help a college avoid common pitfalls and face the hard questions that must be asked in these challenging economic times.

Where Boards Go Wrong – Neglecting to Ask the Hard Questions

How many times have you heard someone say in a board meeting: “Well, you know our role is to give, get or get off?”

It is said so often and has been around so long that for many it appears to capture a magical essence of the role of the board member in fundraising.

But it doesn’t even come close and sometimes it leads to the worst mistakes a board can collectively make.

When the board is so focused on blindly raising funds, the collective mental calculus sometimes goes like this. We want to build a new addition, or add a new service. That costs money. We don’t have that money right now. Let’s go ask people for it.  Fred and Susan, you go talk to John. Angela and Bill, you go talk to Rob. We’ll just go and get it done. Period.

What very often results is that the group ends up raising some money. You get one or two persons who are enthusiastic to make some nice gifts but others don’t contribute, the project is partly started and not completed—- and drags on and on.

Boards so often neglect to take the most important step — which is to talk about why the proposed project means so much, how it connects to and helps accomplish the organizations’ strategic plan, and why donors might wish to make gifts. Even more importantly, they do not discuss if they- as members of the board- are EACH willing to make a gift to the effort.

Failure to Take Ownership – Dangers of the Unanimous Approval Syndrome

All of us have likely sat in a board meeting and heard a staff or board member present a plan for a campaign that on the surface appears well thought out, supports the organization’s strategic plan, fills an important need, is likely to engender nice gifts  —  all seems well.

During discussion of the plan, there are comments like: “yes, this sounds good,” and “sure, we think that is a great way to go,” or even “absolutely, go after it!” There are just a few mechanical or tactical questions. The vote is called for, the plan is approved and the board goes on to new business.

Seems great, but our experience tells us that is when you should be very concerned. That might be called the Unanimous Approval Syndrome.

When this happens, it is likely that the board members do not feel as though they are the “owners” of the Campaign. They have said it is ok to proceed assuming that others will make the gifts and do the hard work associated with making it succeed.

They have not asked probing questions and the topic of what is required of them has never come up. They have not considered what it will mean in terms of a personal gift from them and their ownership to go out and present the plan passionately to others to secure their support.  Board members must carefully consider and discuss what it means to be owners of the effort.

Avoiding the Pitfalls – Four Questions Every Board Should Ask

With these common pitfalls in mind, Ted recently shared in a short video interview for our website what we believe are key questions a trustee should ask when they hear about a proposed campaign:

  1. Do you understand why a campaign is proposed and will it advance the mission of the organization? Will it help you help people? Will you do better work?
  2. Have the staff and the CEO thought through the campaign… thoroughly? Do they know what will be required of them? Can they support the effort? Are they ready to support volunteers?
  3. Are you prepared to be personally very generous to the campaign.
  4. Has an objective set of eyes studied the campaign – and reported authentically on what will make it work— and what might derail it?

We’d be interested in hearing your perspectives about these key questions. Please let us know what you think. We’re all students when it comes to getting it right for our clients…

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