Abolish the Board Fundraising Committee – it’s time

A colleague recently asked: How can you make the most of your board’s development committee meeting? Here’s my completely unconventional answer to that question: Abolish the board fundraising committee.

What? You must be wondering if I’ve lost my mind.

No, I’m pretty serious. And here’s why:

After years of serving as a Development Director and as a fundraising consultant, I’ve rarely found a board Fund Development Committee that works very well.

You know the score:

  • No one wants to serve on the committee.
  • Those that do are reluctantly serving.
  • The group supports each other in developing reasons for avoiding unpleasant tasks.
  • So many different fundraising jobs are heaped onto the same committee — policy making, special events, annual giving, large gifts, etc. — that people who were recruited because they were eager to work on one program get distracted by the other activities.

I’m convinced that the ineffectiveness of many of these committees comes partly from the confusion over the committee’s role. Most job descriptions are neither here (a policy group of the board) nor there (an action group of the staff). These multipurpose committees end up being ineffective at creating policy, and they aren’t very good at raising money either.

So I recommend abolishing this dual purpose committee. Instead, I suggest that you separate the various functions into at least two committees:

  • a policy-making committee that reports to the full Board, and
  • separate, task-oriented fundraising committees that include Board members, but report to staff.

The Revenue Planning or Fundraising Policy Committee

First, create a Board task force whose sole purpose is to focus on policy-making around fundraising (which is the Board’s role after all). Call it the Revenue Planning or Fundraising Policy Group or something similar.

This could be a standing committee or it might be a temporary work group, charged with developing long-range revenue strategies for your organization within the framework of other board-approved priorities. Task this group with the job of bringing to the Board for discussion and approval a long-range revenue strategy that will support your organization’s program and operations over the next five to ten years (or more).

Before recommending any scenario, the committee should engage in a thoughtful strategic process that scans the environment, identifies future funding trends, posits future scenarios, explores the changing role of revenue generation in the nonprofit sector, and assesses current organizational capacity. It would stay focused at the highest policy levels and answer critical organization questions such as:

  • What funding models are possible?
  • What funding model makes the most sense for our particular organization?
  • What is the right balance of restricted vs. unrestricted income?
  • Is there a need for an endowment? To do what? How urgent is the need to create this?
  • How will we stay competitive and relevant to funders?
  • How dependent should we be on any single source of funding?
  • How much risk are we willing to accept in our annual or long range forecasts?
  • How much growth would additional investment in revenue-generating capacity produce for our organization?
  • What kind of investment is necessary to achieve these objectives? Over what timeline?
  • What is the obligation of the Board in revenue generation?
  • How will the Board effectively monitor fundraising success?

While the Chief Development Officer and other development staff are critical to the success of this team, the ultimate responsibility for approving this top-level direction is the Board’s.

This is a pretty radical departure from the typical Fund Development Committee. Unfortunately, too many organizations stumble along without ever giving serious consideration to their business model or revenue future. As you can see, this ad hoc committee is not responsible for raising any money itself.

The committee can disband when its work is done. It can be reconvened at an appropriate interval (given the nature of your industry) to assess the relevance of the current revenue strategy given changes in the environment, changes in your organization, and changes in future needs.

Then, enable board volunteers to support fundraising – with or without a committee

First, determine if your revenue model needs leadership volunteers for success. Not every model does (e.g. government contracts, program fees or direct-response driven donations).

But if you do need leadership volunteers to support philanthropy-focused revenue generation, then meet with board members one on one to gauge their interest and invite them to work with you on a fundraising team focused on a specific objective.

For example, you might have a team/committee for major gifts, another for a particular special event, and another serving as an advisory group for public relations or advertising.

Only recruit volunteers if it is clear that their involvement will lead to better fundraising results. You don’t need reluctant nay-sayers dragging down your other volunteers.

Some teams will find it helpful to meet as a committee. Other teams might involve your working one-on-one with your board volunteer.

Recruit each volunteer (whether a board member or not) for his/her skills and competencies to accomplish the task at hand. Give each person a specific job to do or goal to reach that they have agreed to. Make sure everyone on the team knows any limitations or constraints on raising that money (e.g. when to check in before approaching a prospect or the budget limits on that special event).

In this approach, there is no ambiguity about the job of the volunteer or role of the committee. The job is to raise money following the plan outlined by the Development Staff and in alignment with the strategic direction approved by the Board.

While volunteer advice is important to successful teamwork and to strategize the best way to approach a particular donor, it’s clear to all that volunteers weren’t recruited to “supervise” professional staff or to undo carefully forged development plans.

Nonprofits are more effective and Board members both more effective and successful when desired outcomes are clear, when the right people have been recruited for the right tasks, and when workgroups are focused on their own tasks and not others.

You don’t always have to follow conventional wisdom. Why be locked into dysfunctional structures for tradition’s sake? You can and should create new, flexible models when the old ones aren’t working any longer. Abolish the board fundraising committee that is just standing in the way of successful fundraising.


What does your board know about fundraising?

Board member fundraising; what they need from you

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

Books for nonprofits