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Case Studies from Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations

[Image: Book cover]Thomas Wolf writes: "This is the third blog post drawn from my recently published book, Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together. This one is called: “Getting the Board to Give – Part I.” It is one of the case histories that shows how an executive director and a board member worked in concert to effect more robust giving in a small nonprofit. A future post will return to this topic.

Tom was in his mid-twenties and still in graduate school when he was invited to serve on his first board. The board he ended up joining was connected to a small, separately incorporated, local chapter of a national nonprofit coalition. His mother had served on the national board with distinction for many years, and she had been quite a colorful and beloved member. When one of the chapters learned that her son lived in the area, they immediately asked him to join the local board. After receiving the invitation, he called his mother to ask whether it was appropriate to accept, given his limited time availability and even more limited trustee experience. She said. “You should do it. I have heard they need you.”

Once Tom attended his first board meeting, he realized his mother had not been exaggerating; he might be of some assistance to a hard-working executive director who had to struggle with a rather inactive board. Tom met with her privately to learn about the organization and received an earful of complaints about problems, especially in the financial area. Despite the impressive list of board members and the obvious wealth of some of them, the organization’s finances were in a shambles. And it was clear why. The trustees were not giving much money—indeed, some gave nothing at all.

“Give, Get, or Get Off.” That much, at least, Tom had learned from his parents and he had already put aside money to contribute. He accepted the board assignment knowing that trustees need to donate, they need to raise money, and if they don’t do these things, they need to get off the board and make room for others who will. He remembered the argument. The board should be the first line of support. They need to set the standard of giving, and then they must go out and raise more. Well, it certainly wasn’t happening in this organization.

What to do? Tom had no idea. The executive director spoke confidentially and frankly to him. “My dilemma,” she said, “is that I am the wrong one to complain. I can’t tell the board members they should be giving more. It has to come from the board itself. But no one is willing to tackle the issue, not even the president who, compared to the others, is rather generous. I need help from someone, and if you are willing, I can coach you on what to say.”

Tom and the executive director waited for an appropriate opportunity to inject the issue into a board discussion in a natural and unforced way. That opportunity was a discussion of the budget for the coming year. There was much hand wringing about how difficult it was going to be to balance the budget, given how little money had come in. Tom raised his hand. “How much of the individual contributions are coming from the trustees?”

The question was not spontaneous. It had been planted by prior agreement between Tom and the executive director, so an answer was immediately forthcoming by her: it was a paltry sum that trustees contributed. “My,” Tom said (again well prepared). “That’s a very small number. How many of us are giving?” When told that only about half the trustees were donors, Tom tried to look shocked. “Well, I know I am the youngest one here, and I should probably defer to others. But people I respect a lot have told me that in nonprofit organizations, all trustees should be contributing something.”

After an awkward silence, the meeting moved on. But Tom wouldn’t leave it there. The next day, he wrote a letter to his fellow trustees saying that he had rechecked with a friend who worked at a foundation, and he had been informed that most foundations would not consider a grant application from an organization unless there was 100 percent trustee participation in giving. “So let’s set ourselves a modest goal this year of 100 percent participation by the trustees in giving and a $10,000 total from the board. Give what you can. But since there are twenty-five of us, you can figure out what we need to average per gift.”

Gifts started coming in—some a lot larger than the $400 average that was needed. One trustee sent $500 and wondered whether she should resign, given that she couldn’t afford what she said was “the full $4,000 average gift.” Clearly her math skills were not very good, and Tom assured her that as she had in fact exceeded the average, there was no need to resign. After a week, Tom called those he had not heard from and in one case went to someone’s home in the evening to pick up the check. In the end, the money taken in was almost double what he had set out to raise. In addition, there were three resignations from the board (which Tom and the executive director privately celebrated), and there was 100 percent giving from the rest. The organization then enacted a policy stating that for trustees, failure to make a cash gift in any year constituted an automatic resignation from the board.

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--© Thomas Wolf. from Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together, Allworth Press, 2013. For single copies, go to For information on discounts on multiple copy orders, email or call This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  (617-494-9300).