If fundraising is a profession, why are we so angry with our amateur board members?

Last week I found myself in a very interesting conversation about the “profession” of fundraising.

A colleague was sharing ideas from a workshop she attended. The presenter  had described a common situation that many directors of development experience.

You know the one. The development director has just laid out a carefully crafted strategy based on best practices and research. Immediately a board member or other leadership volunteer challenges the elements of the plan.

I’ve found that this scenario is very common when planning events or personal solicitation campaigns.

Usually, the challenge reflects the anxiety of the volunteer at being asked to step outside of his or her comfort zone. The volunteer/board member, fearful of the task ahead, comes up with dozens of reasons why the carefully developed strategy won’t work. Why, another organization he volunteered at just sent out a glossy letter instead of asking him to make phone calls.

So my colleague noted that the workshop presenter made the case that fundraising is a profession. One of the ways to tell a true profession is whether or not it has a body of knowledge that is “unique and specific to its practice and function.” (AFP).  She made the case that fundraising does in fact have an established and growing body of knowledge.

The presenter then described a few scenarios of other professions with established bodies of knowledge where it would be unimaginable to find the amateur telling the professional how to do that job. Here are two that came to mind:

  • Could you imagine a board member telling the chief of surgery at a nonprofit hospital a better way to perform an upcoming operation?
  • Or a committee chair telling the head coach at an independent school a better way to train his basketball players? (Well, maybe you could imagine that, but you get the picture.)

So why do board members feel they can tell fundraising “professionals” how to do their job?

But here was my counterpoint.

Before we get a little self-righteous about all that profession stuff, maybe we need to look into the mirror.

Perhaps our board members don’t treat us as the professionals we are because we act like amateurs can do our jobs.

Case in point:

Why do development directors and executive directors act like their board members rose from the primordial ooze as trained fundraisers?

I find way too much agony and even anger in this profession at board members about fundraising.  I’ve written about this time and again (see Banishing your expectation of board fundraising). How, if we believe that fund development is a profession, can we expect good-hearted people with no fund development background to spontaneously do our jobs for us?

We can’t both complain that we aren’t respected for the professionals we are and then simultaneously gripe and moan when the amateurs on our boards don’t act like professional fundraisers.

Find the willing, equip them with compelling cases for support, train them, and hold their hands all the way through the process. In essence, put those professional skills to work.

17 responses to If fundraising is a profession, why are we so angry with our amateur board members?

  1. Erica Holthausen

    Thank you, Gayle, for a wonderful and thoughtful post. The old mantra of “give, get or get off” doesn’t work — and really never did. Blanket statements indicating that the board is responsible for fundraising are also over-simplified and misleading. There are a lot of ways to get board members involved in fundraising, but it is our job — as professionals — to meet them where they are and provide them with the information and support they need to be successful — regardless of whether they are inviting a major donor to invest in the organization or making a thank you call to a new donor.

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      I agree completely Erica. I hope that we can continue to create a shift in thinking among nonprofit staff that, overall, will make for more rewarding staff and board experiences AND raise more resources for worthy work.

  2. Gail Perry

    Gayle, this is a subject I think and blog about a lot too. There is waaay too much friction between staff and board members about fundraising. Sometimes I think the staff is living in one universe and the board members are in another one altogether. And nobody is communicating.

    Thanks for the reminder that we all need to hold ourselves as professionals, present our plans as professionals, and don’t place high expectations on amateur board volunteers, who don’t know any better.

    Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful post!

  3. Dan


    Great post! I completely agree and hope that more non-profits will take the time to work with their boards to be sure that they at least have the basic skills & understanding to be effective fundraisers. There is definitely the mindset of “why don’t they get this?” among fundraising staff and we must take it on to train our board members.

  4. Bunnie Riedel

    You have hit on the biggest frustration of executive directors, the board is supposed to raise money but never does. Thanks for the good advice. Bunnie Riedel

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      It is exactly that belief, that the board is required to raise money, that started us on this downward spiral. Not every board needs to be involved in fundraising. And for those organizations where peers are needed to help with revenue development, you don’t need every board member. Of course, I do agree that every board member should be a cheerleader for the organizations on whose boards they serve.

  5. Steve Thomas

    Yeeoww!!!! Gayle, you hit the nail on the head…painfully but correctly. Acting like a professional is better than claiming to be a professional every time. It is interesting how much we want to change other people…

    Thanks for the great thoughts.

  6. Pamela Grow

    Terrific post Gayle and, yes, as Steve and others noted, you hit the nail on the head. This is an issue I’ve been thinking about quite a bit myself lately. We’ve really got to take the lead when it comes to our boards and our development committees and, as Erica puts it “meet them where they are” in terms of fundraising. Our boards can be huge assets to our fundraising efforts when they’re pointed in the right direction.

  7. Betsy Baker

    Been there, done that, have the t-shirt! It is certainly frustrating to be challenged after that carefully laid out plan you’ve just presented is met with a ton of questions/suggestions. But it’s helpful to remember the frustrations of the board members being asked to step outside of their boxes, like you mentioned. Thanks for the dead-on scenario that many of us are all too familiar with. May we all live in peace… 🙂

  8. Nancy Sabin


    You make excellent points about fundraising within the context of a profession and the level of frustration various stakeholders have with it. However, it’s important to think of fundraising has a continuum of activities from simple to complex.

    More simple activities are handled by youth or adults who do fundraising for their favorite sport or school because they support the work. Complex activities are those handled by professionals and experienced philanthropists.

    Bottom line, fundraising engages someone more closely to mission-based efforts. Getting closer can lead to more effective governance. When there’s an exchange of funds and/or the time doing it to the actual activities the funds make possible, it becomes the glue that sustains many nonprofits.

    As humans, once we invest our time and money in an issue, we are much more committed to it. That said, it’s why it is so important for board members to do whatever fund raising they’re capable of doing, even if it’s simply sending in their own donation. Putting your money where your mouth is, can bring about more meaningful change.

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I make a distinction between personal giving and fundraising. I believe that all board members should make a leadership gift (tailored to their financial means) to the organizations on whose boards they serve. But I don’t consider that fundraising, I prefer to call that philanthropy.

      Fundraising to me is the act of raising needed resources from others. And yes, in tiny organizations or all volunteer organizations, the amateurs do the work. But even many of those volunteers could use support to be better at what they do. I think all of us have seen the special event that consumes tons of time and raises little or even no money .. simply because no one sat down to do the math in advance of the event, something that would be second nature to the professionals. And many of the big -a-Thons that have volunteers raising tons of money provide significant training, suggestions, materials, scripts and technology to help their volunteers be successful.

      As someone who has worked with countless boards, I do have to disagree that getting board members to raise funds automatically increases their support for the mission. I’d only say that was so if those members have rewarding personal experiences in doing the fundraising — if they feel well-prepared, committed to the cause and confident about the relationship of the money they are asking for to mission results.

      I do agree that getting our volunteers out talking to other people about why they support an organization and why you might want to as well can have a hugely motivating impact… the halo effect. That’s why I always start just getting my volunteers reaching out and asking questions and talking to people first. So I think we have much agreement, just some different phrasings.

      Best, Gayle

  9. Mary Cahalane

    I do think Board members need to be involved in fundraising. But fundraising does not have to equal solicitations. They need to be fundraisers in the same way that all the staff at our organizations do: they need to be ambassadors, they need to be willing (and able) to talk to people about what we do, and yes, I believe they ought to give financially. The amount may vary, but it’s a commitment that every Board member can make at some level.

    On the other side, it’s a big part of our job to make those activities accessible to our Boards. If they need hand-holding, we hold. If they need teaching, we teach (especially if we can do that without seeming to put them in a subservient position). If they’re anxious about our plans, we need to be able to describe them or explain them in terms that a someone who is not a development professional can understand.

    We need to find ways to engage them that matter. Then we need to celebrate their achievements.

    And while I’ve definitely griped about having to defend a plan, or explain my actions, or insist on my expertise… in the end, I think we all need to hang up a sign that says: “It’s not about you”.

    We enrich the community when we help Board members succeed. And that’s what we’re here for, right?

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      I agree that board members can be tremendously helpful in making connections for our organizations… but those connections might be professional ones that lead to improved program outcomes and not directly to money. And that has great value to our organization, but a much more indirect route to raising resources. (Better outcomes make it easier to raise money, yes.)

      While I also sometimes use the word ambassador to describe making those connections, I find many shades of meaning to that word, not all of which I would lump into a fundraising bucket. Friendraising yes. But all friends don’t lead to money, yet friends are important.

      First and foremost, we need to recruit board members to ensure a great governing board. They get to decide who does the resource getting, and they can choose it not to be them. That’s why they hire the professionals.

      If we need our board members to support our work in fundraising, then, like you suggest, we need to work one on one with them to help them be effective and rewarded in this task. And as I’ve suggested elsewhere, we don’t need everyone.

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