Banishing your expectation of board fundraising, or why does it feel so good when I stop?

February 14, 2005 – by Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

Part One: Reframing the problem
If there’s one staff frustration about nonprofit boards that I’ve heard over and over again, it is “my board won’t raise money.” The belief that nonprofit boards are responsible for fundraising has become a mantra in our sector. You’re sure to find it on almost every listing of the “Duties of a Nonprofit Board.”

I’d like to suggest that the reason that we’re having such a hard time getting board members to engage in fundraising is exactly because we have bought into this myth.

The axiom that board members must fundraise sets them up for failure. And sets staff up for failure as well. In their role as governors, board members have an extremely big job. They are accountable (or should be) to the public and their community to see their organizations fulfill their mission and use their resources wisely. This takes time, the willingness to learn about both community and nonprofit issues and extreme amounts of courage to ask hard questions and take corrective action.

Yes, boards need to ensure that they provide for the short and long term financial well-being of their organization. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they need to do the fundraising themselves.

Considering how specialized fundraising has become, why is it inconceivable that a board might choose to delegate the accountability for revenue generation to highly trained professionals rather than inexperienced volunteers? What other area of nonprofit life carries those same expectations of volunteers to fill professional roles that fundraising does? Would we expect our volunteer board members to teach in our classrooms…provide mental health services…operate on patients?

Now, I’m not knocking volunteers or board members as fundraisers. They do it every day, in thousands of organizations. And having board members who assist in fundraising can make a huge difference in the revenues of a nonprofit by opening doors to great wealth.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any accurate statistics on which nonprofits have fund development staff and which don’t. But I’m pretty willing to bet that if you look beneath the surface of nonprofits that have grown beyond that first $50,000 – $100,000 of revenues, you’ll find that staff (including executive directors) carry the burden of directing and managing fundraising, not volunteers.So, while it might sound heretical, it is not a law that board members must raise money in order for a nonprofit to successfully generate sufficient revenues.

I started my professional life in a national nonprofit that raised over $25 million a year – and not one of our board members directly solicited donors for money.

This wasn’t an anomaly. We can all name many large and successful organizations where the board members do little if any fundraising of any kind. Think of all those social service organizations where most of the funding comes from government grants and contracts – how many board members do you know who are writing and reporting on those grants? Or the countless number of national organizations that depend primarily on direct mail – what volunteers are running (not advising, but running) those multi-million piece mailing campaigns? And who do we think is behind successful planned giving programs?

Given that we don’t provide enough training and guidance for our boards to meet their primary role as good governors, why fault them for not automatically being proficient in their supporting roles as well?

We need to stop making board members convenient scapegoats for our inability as staff to enable volunteers in support of our fundraising activities.

As a consultant, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard Executive Directors or Directors of Development blame their lack of fundraising success on their board. “I wasn’t able to raise money because my board won’t fundraise.” Or, “We have the wrong board members to be successful.”

When I probe more deeply, many of these individuals have entered their jobs with the expectation that every one of their board members, on their own and without significant enabling from staff, will be running successful fundraising campaigns. This becomes especially acute in organizations where the board was never recruited to raise money to begin with. These expectations are fueled by the too few stories of nonprofits that do have successful board participation in fundraising yet fail to acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of very talented staff enabling those board members.

What if we (as nonprofit staff) had never learned that it was the role of the board to raise money? Would we act differently about fundraising and our responsibility to ensure that our organizations have sufficient resources?

I would like to propose that the first place to start isn’t by lecturing board members on their role as fundraisers. That scenario is doomed to failure. So how do we move away from lecturing board members about their obligations and instead develop effective solutions to this problem?

In the next installment of this article I’ll share some strategies to engage your board:


February 24, 2005 – By Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

In the first part of this article, I suggested that it was time to for us to let go of the axiom that “board members must fundraise.” In my experience, this “truism” has led to unproductive board-bashing by staff. It has devalued the extremely important job of the board to create an organization that is worthy and trustworthy of support – with a strategic vision for community betterment, a commitment to results, and wise stewardship of its resources. In no other area of nonprofit activity do we have such high expectations of unskilled volunteers.

So I posed these questions:

  • How would we behave differently toward board members if we (nonprofit staff) had never been told that it was the role of the board to raise money?
  • What strategies would we use to recruit and train volunteers to join us in this critical task?

For sure we wouldn’t start by lecturing board members about their lack of performance. Instead, savvy nonprofit development professionals know that they’ve got to relate to their board members in the same way that they would to any other potential volunteers.

So how can you redesign the way that you work with your board on fundraising?

Begin with a well-crafted human resource plan as a critical component of your development strategy.
Know what jobs need doing and what skills and qualifications are needed in the people whom you will recruit to fill those jobs. Because there are so many different aspects to fund development, you won’t lack for assignments.

  • Volunteers might help generate or qualify lists of prospects.
  • They can be door openers and help make connections.
  • A few will be fabulous strategists.
  • A few will be passionate and tireless advocates for the mission and program approach.
  • Others couldn’t be better at writing thank you notes or hosting thank you events.
  • Some will even be willing to help ask for money.

If we didn’t expect board members to fundraise, then we’d consider them to be just one pool of volunteers available to fill these important jobs – not the only pool. You’ve got other potential volunteers too – buried within your current donor list, among former board members, and even people you haven’t met yet.

Match the right person with the right job.
Just like any other job, not every candidate has the competencies, skills and desires to fill every position. To do the best matching you can, personally interview each board member. You’ll learn a whole lot this way – why they joined this board, what skills and resources he or she might have, what they had hoped to accomplish, their level of passion and commitment, what volunteer work they are already doing, and what training and support they will need to successfully participate in the fund development effort.

I can pretty much guarantee that there will be a few board members you’ll scratch from your fundraiser recruitment list for now. They simply aren’t interested (yet) and will resist your efforts to engage them. That’s okay. Don’t be angry, don’t resent their unwillingness, work with what you’ve got.

If you’re really lucky, you might have one or two individuals who come totally prepared – with the skills and commitment – to fill your toughest job slot of volunteer solicitor. You may even have a few individuals who are game to try it if you provide them with lots of personal support.

But most likely you’ve got a big group of solicitation-terrified board members who bring lots of other critical knowledge to your nonprofit and may even be working incredibly hard in other volunteer roles (beyond the hard work they do as governors).

View yourself as a people-mobilizer.
Don’t underestimate the amount of one-on-one support that it takes to keep board members or any volunteers engaged. Always remember that these individuals are volunteers – no matter how passionate they are about your nonprofit, they’ve got other jobs and demands which will always command their first loyalties.

Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up on assignments. And remember that each person has a different way of learning. Find out what that is and customize your training as needed.

Like any good supervisor, manage your volunteer team for success.
Co-write agreements with each of your board volunteers that outline their commitments – including what will be accomplished, by when, and what support and feedback you’ll provide. Then live up to your obligations. Give your volunteers ongoing feedback. Help them solve problems. Celebrate important milestones and feedback.

Say thank you – a lot!

Because none of us can do everything, remember to invest your greatest energy in the tasks and volunteers who will make the most difference. Don’t waste time trying to move unmovable objects or doing the same ineffective thing over and over.

A friend of mine used to say, “no one notices when you dust the corners.” That is, don’t waste your time meeting an unrealistic definition of perfection – keep moving with what you’ve got instead of fretting about what you don’t have.

If we didn’t assume that it was the responsibility of our board members to fundraise, I predict that we’d stop being resentful of them and instead figure out how best to mobilize the people that we have (and find more volunteers and resources to fill in the gaps).

We’d help put an end to the destructive board-staff resentment that results from our unrealistic expectations of fundraising responsibility – and from never being able to live up to those expectations.

Then, we’d invest all of that otherwise wasted psychic energy in effective actions that enable our volunteers to willingly and rewardingly support fundraising activities that build our organizations. And once the head banging stops, ooh ooh ooh, how good it will feel.

This article first appeared in NonProfit Boards and Governance Review @ Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE and her colleague Jonathan W. Howard at Cause & Effect Inc. help nonprofits from the grassroots to international create strategic change for a more just and peaceful world. With over 30 years of nonprofit experience, Cause & Effect helps nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, board development, fundraising and communications needs.