Blog: Case Studies from Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations 4

Dr. Thomas Wolf

January 02, 2014


Getting the Board to Give – Part II.

Thomas Wolf writes: “This is the fourth blog post drawn from my recently published book, Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together.” It is another case history that shows how an executive director can entice board members to be involved in the fund raising effort.

Some years ago, Jeanne, an experienced fundraiser and inspirational speaker, was invited to lead a conference seminar for executive directors on the topic of encouraging board members to fundraise. She was initially surprised by the invitation and cool to the subject matter. “This is not a good topic,” she told the conference organizer. “Getting board members to fundraise is not the executive director’s job. It is the job of the board president or other trustees. They have to light the fire and get their peers to be involved in the important work of fundraising.”

The conference organizer disagreed, saying, “You know perfectly well that in many cases it will only happen if executive directors become involved. Help them figure out what specifically executive directors can and should do.”

Eventually Jeanne designed a seminar under the title of this chapter: “Cracking the Whip: Getting Board Members to Fundraise.” To get good material in advance, Jeanne canvassed participants, asking a simple question: “What excuses do board members give for not fundraising?” The various responses were placed in a dozen categories that were dispiritingly familiar:

1.        I don’t know how to ask for money.

2.        I don’t feel comfortable asking for money.

3.        Others are better at asking for money than I am. 

4.        I can’t ask my friends for money.

5.        I can’t ask my family for money.

6.        If I ask people for money, they will ask me.

7.        I already gave.

8.        I am too busy.

9.        The executive director is a professional in this area.

10.     The organization already has development staff.

11.     I do other things for the organization.

12.     I won’t be successful.

Having seen the many manifestations of the problem, Jeanne was able to get participants to come up with common sense solutions to how they could be addressed. Many of the executive directors were already using one or two of them, but collectively, they amounted to a veritable arsenal of strategies.

Let’s start with the heart of the matter—the concern about asking for money. The first six of the twelve reasons for not fundraising all have the word “ask” in them. So clearly, many trustees simply do not understand the comprehensive nature of the fundraising process of which asking is just one part. They hear the term “fundraise” and it conjures up a picture of a bejeweled matron or a corporate titan sitting impatiently, drumming the arm of a chair while the reluctant trustee begs for a handout. It is a frightening image for many trustees, especially those who have never thought about it before, so the first task is to dispel the image. The second is to replace it with a comprehensive picture of the fundraising process. That is an executive director’s role.

As one executive director put it, “We have analyzed all the tasks that go into fundraising at our organization. Yes, making calls and asking someone for a gift is one job. But there are so many others: working on our annual gala, or other fundraising events, is one large category. Personalizing direct mail letters and personally acknowledging gifts by writing thank you notes is another category (some of our younger trustees will send out emails). We also encourage our trustees to go through annual reports and programs of other local nonprofits and compile lists of their high-end donors and then secure addresses when possible so we can add them to our prospect list. Identifying acquaintances or family members who might be associated with corporations and foundations, working on a fundraising video, taking photographs at some of our programs that could be included in a brochure, helping to develop good ideas and copy for fundraising materials—the list goes on and on. Any of this can be counted toward discharging one’s fundraising responsibilities.”

“What we do is ask board members to rate these activities in order of preference. Once they do, we are well on our way toward developing an army of fundraising volunteers. We find that there are a lot of things that are part of fundraising that even our most recalcitrant volunteers are willing to do. And success in one area can often build confidence in another. You would be surprised by how many of those who absolutely refused to ask for money are now comfortable doing so. It is my job as executive director (and that of my development director) to work with the group, finding their areas of interest and willingness and nurturing them.”

Once trustees have chosen fundraising tasks, there is still the challenge of fulfillment. Many will sign up for things with the best will in the world and then discover they are too busy and put off the responsibility. Addressing this frustration can be as easy as developing written assignments with due dates and a master calendar that is shared with the entire board. Once again, it is the executive director who either performs this task, or in larger organizations with development staff, ensures that it gets done. Monitoring, reminding, and reporting is as important as developing the assignment sheets in the first place.

It remains the case that some board members will actually have to do some soliciting, and here the issue may be fear of the unknown and fear of failure. Looking at the list from Jeanne’s workshop, many of the excuses board members gave centered around anxiety about the act of asking. Change that and one is more likely to get volunteer askers.

A skilled executive director can begin the process of addressing the anxiety of asking by breaking it into finer grain detail. What are people really worried about? As it turns out, in example after example, there are five important anxiety moments that trustees talk about:

  • The first is the moment of setting up a fundraising appointment. What should they say and not say? How much should they acknowledge about it being a fundraising call? Would they get rejected before they even get an appointment? 
  • Second, there is the worry about how to start the conversation once they meet with a prospect. What should they talk about? 
  • Third is the moment of making the transition to the topic of fundraising. There can be great anxiety about doing that smoothly and without embarrassment.
  • Fourth is the ask itself. Should they ask for a specific amount? Would the donor be insulted or angry if they did?
  • Finally, there is the anxiety of knowing what to do when they get an answer, especially if that answer is no. 

Helping trustees feel more confident about each of these anxiety moments can go a long way toward making them willing to try. Practicing with them might well give them the confidence they need to get over the hump. Accompanying them on some initial calls will provide practice and even more confidence.

An executive director, especially one who is not particularly confident and experienced about these issues, may want to solicit help from a board member or an outside professional trainer. Or he or she may decide to pair less-experienced trustees with confident, experienced ones (or with a staff member). No board members should be forced to solicit friends or family if they do not want to, though all should be encouraged to serve as door openers for others. Since nothing succeeds like success, and the greatest inducement to persuading trustees to do more fundraising is to have them succeed the first few times, it is important to collect and disseminate success stories. Offering beginners low hanging fruit to help them succeed on their initial forays can also serve as an encouragement device.

One of the most important misunderstandings is found in organizations that have professional development staff or even in those where the executive director is the only professional who raises money. Some inexperienced trustees, recognizing the expertise and competence of these individuals, may wonder what they can offer in fundraising. For starters, as we have seen, there are many tasks that do not require expertise. And there are others where the involvement of a board member is simply more appropriate. As volunteers, who are themselves giving time and money, their credibility may well be greater than salaried staff. In addition, their involvement in an ask can serve as a compliment to a potential donor.

Again, it is the executive director who can help convey these messages, explaining what development staff members actually do and where they need help. Explaining the credibility that board members bring to the fundraising process puts the proposition of their involvement in the form of a compliment rather than a scold. It also builds a sense of teamwork that provides a strong and positive culture within the organization.

Jeanne’s “Cracking the Whip” conference seminar was so popular that many other groups requested it and she repeated it many times. Eventually, she built the topic into a fundraising course she taught at a local university. The topic of how an executive director can encourage board members to fundraise turned out to be an important one and served as another example of how an effective executive director can help individuals become more effective trustees.

–© Thomas Wolf from Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together, Allworth Press, 2013. Buy the book.


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