NOTE: The following article was written as a complement to a presentation for the London and Region Fund Raising Executives Conference on May 30, 2013.  A copy of the PowerPoint presentation for that session can be found on SlideShark.


The Joy of Working with Boards

  • “We don’t have anyone on our board that is willing to ask for money.”
  • “No one on our board knows anyone with money.”
  • “Our board couldn’t conduct a successful fundraising call even if they did know someone.”
  • “My board doesn’t know what I really do.”
  • “My directors think that just because they sold Boy Scout Apples, they know how to run a major gifts campaign.”
  • “I’m not allowed to talk to our board.”

Hopefully, things are not quite so bad in your organization, but these are not uncommon refrains for fundraising executives. So, what can you do about it?  You have three options.

Option A: Ignore the Board

Your board may be grappling with major issues. It may not be well-suited to fundraising .  You may not have access to group.  Fundraising might not be a board priority. If you are not in a position to recruit your board for fundraising, don’t worry. You can still accomplish much without them.

In addition to the volunteers that may or may not be available to you at the board, there is real value in having a fundraising committee. This group should be focused on fundraising solicitations. You may already have a foundation board focused on financial management or a development committee focused on things like fundraising policy.  While governance is obviously important, you also want a group whose only mission is asking for money.

People sometimes think that the most senior business people have to be on the board, but your board may be filled with representative stakeholders, technical experts or political appointees.   The time requirements of your board can also dissuade the busiest people from serving. The narrower focus of a fundraising committee can make it possible to recruit heavy hitters not possible on the board.  With a fundraising committee, you can actually build a solicitation dream team, and you may find that you do not miss the board at all.

Another option to lessen your dependence on the board can be to do more staff-driven fundraising. One area where this is especially true is corporate sponsorship.  You do not have to be in the arts or sports to leverage sponsorship. Traditionally charitable causes like healthcare and education can also take advantage of this fundraising technique. Sponsorship fundraising focuses on the business value of a partnership and less on the personal relationships of the solicitors.  Indeed, the better your value proposition, the easier it is for staff to lead the fundraising effort.

Option B: Manage the Board

While you could ignore your board, ideally, you are in a position to work with them.  There are four key steps you can take to improve your fundraising potential.


1. Frame the Challenge

The first step to improving the fundraising success of your board is to ensure that you have properly framed the challenge for them. If you and the board are not on the same page about the role of the board and the importance of fundraising in your organization, you will be working at cross purposes.  There are four key areas that require framing.

Before anything else staff and the board must agree on the keys to success for your organization.  These priorities could be anything such as government fundraising or relations, audience marketing, employee excellence or public fundraising. The key for you is to know where fundraising fits in the priority list.   If only a tiny fraction of your organization’s revenue comes from fundraising, development should likely not be a strategic priority for the board.  On the other hand, if the very survival of your organization depends on the funds you bring in, they need to be more engaged in development issues.  When various members of the organization agree on the importance of fundraising, you are much more likely to get the support and resources appropriate to that level of priority.

In the corporate world, the role of the board is typically governance. Best practices dictate that the board sets the broad direction of the company, provides goals to the CEO and then overseas the CEO’s achievement of those goals. In this arrangement, operational matters are not the purview of the board.  In the charitable sector, board members are often called on to play a volunteer role in operations in addition to their governance responsibilities. Ideally, these two commitments would be separate, but often they are not.  That said, the larger your organization and the more staff you have, the more likely your board is going to need to focus on governance issues.  Staff and the board need to agree on this mix of operational participation and governance oversight. The more operational your board, the more you can involve them in fundraising solicitations, and the better you can make the case in that regard.

Before you can involve your board in development operations, you must be on the same page with them regarding the keys to fundraising success. This starts with identifying what fundraising success looks like — that is your fundraising goals. Then, you can discuss the human and financial resources that you need to be successful.  If they feel you can be successful without the board, board engagement strategies would very likely fail.

Depending on your staff level in your organization, the size of your organization and the makeup of your board, you may have limited access to the directors or significant access. Your board could also see your role as one of working with them or simply reporting to them. Before you can successfully engage your board in fundraising, you must have a meeting of the minds about your role.

If either your boss or the board wish to limit your role with the directors, and it is agreed that they are important to fundraising success, and fundraising success is important to your organization, you need to address your role. You need to ask if it is felt your ability to work with the board is deficient in any way. It could be that your boss needs to participate in your board interaction until you have demonstrated your ability to manage the relationships.  You may even need to ask for mentorship in this regard.

The key to fundraising success is to have a discussion about what you need to get the job done, and then jointly focus on putting those resources and conditions in place.


2. Make Them Feel Your Pain
It’s human nature for us to want to second guess the actions of others after the fact. Many of us love to be armchair critics.  Listen to a sports radio call-in show and you will notice that the biggest fans are also the biggest haters full of advice for the full-time professionals.  This human nature can be even more evident when someone feels it is there job to critique performance such as when in a board role.  However, sometimes this second guessing becomes counter-productive and even creates us versus them situations.  To make matters worse, staff in different departments can find themselves partaking in the same second guessing adding weight to the perceptions of the board.

Fortunately, there are several things you can do to limit after-the-fact critiques.

The time to debate your fundraising strategies is before you begin them rather than once they are in progress.  To do this, you need a detailed fundraising plan.  Then anyone that will be in a position to critique your fundraising success needs to approve that plan.  If someone does not have an approval role, then they should also not be in a critique role of that same area.

With an approved plan in place, when someone questions the state of fundraising, you are either on-plan or falling behind. If the former, you can point to that fact.  If falling behind, you rightly have to explain your lack of progress.

When you present a report, it can create an expectation with some people that a critique is required. Sometimes this is very productive.  Other times it is commentary for the sake of commentary. If you feel that the feedback you are receiving during your reporting processes is counter-productive, you should move to increase the focus on collaboration.

When you actively engage people in a process, you increase their understanding and support for that process. This involvement can be as simple as having the opportunity to advise along the way. Today’s online tools provide a tremendous opportunity for your board to collaborate as you work.

(Two tools I use in fundraising for online collaboration are Trello and Pipedrive.)

To avoid excessive second guessing, you want to involve the board and other senior staff in some of your greatest challenges.  This can go well beyond solicitations to territory typically thought of as your exclusive domain. For example, if members of your organization are questioning conditions that donors wish to place on gifts, involve those critics in your negotiations and in the drafting of gift agreements. However, don’t simply send a draft document for review — involve them in the initial crafting of the document. Think of it like a ride-along a politician does with the police. Explain that the process is about fostering understanding — not that you are looking for their assistance in doing your job.

It is amazing how much more understanding a VP of Finance or a Board Treasurer can be when sitting across from a donor rather than responding to one of your reports.


3. Focus Your Effort

One of the best ways to increase the fundraising support from your board is to only give them very specific things to do and to only work with those most likely to succeed.

Generally, the more specific a task you give someone, the more likely they are to do it. So, be very specific with board members when seeking their assistance.  Place the greatest priority on them doing the things you cannot. For example, it is likely more important for them to open a door to a prospect than to help close a solicitation by asking for the donation. So, if the board member in question is uncomfortable asking for money, consider letting them off that hook as long as they open the door.

Likewise, you want to define the amount of work you want them to do.  For example, do ask them or let them to commit to making numerous calls. Give them no more than five prospects at a time. If they complete those or exhaust their ability to reach them, only then should you give them more prospect assignments.  Ideally, you also want to limit the timeframe of their participation — such as asking for the board’s help every Fall.  Again, by asking for less, you can generally achieve more.

Asking for money is not a natural act for most people.  As a result some people will seek to avoid a fundraising commitment right from the start and others will not follow through on calls even though they originally agreed to help.  You want to plan for this eventuality, and make sure you spend the bulk of your energy supporting those making calls rather than trying to cajole those that are not.  You also don’t want to let those not fundraising dishearten those making good progress.

You also want to be upfront before fundraising begins on a process that you will use for taking prospects back from board members.   For example, you might say that people have two months to arrange an appointment with a prospect, and that prospect will be returned to the unassigned pool if no outcome is achieved in that period.

Remember, a couple of keeners can often accomplish more than a large group of ambivalent supporters.


4. Hold Their Hands

To help your board achieve fundraising success, you want to layout a detailed plan of attack for them — both for dealing with whole categories of prospects and for the conduct on an individual solicitation.

If you are not familiar with the concepts of fundraising moves management, team selling, sales pipelines and sales cycles, start studying or find someone who is to help you.  These processes involve charting out in advance the stages prospects will go through when reaching a decision to donate to your organization. You can plan for each of these stages and the actions that you will have to take to move them to each next stage until the decision point is reached.

When you chart out a moves management strategy and employ a sales pipeline, in addition to the reducing reporting critiques described above, it is much easier to identify important tasks to which board members and other volunteers can assist you.  You can also increase the overall sense of engagement with your volunteers.

(Again Pipedrive is a tool I use for a Moves Management Pipeline.  It is not a free tool, but the developers will assist any charity not in a position to pay for the service.)

When board members are calling or meeting with prospects, you want to provide them with a script to follow.  Volunteers will proceed in the manner most comfortable to them, but experience shows the more on-message they stay, on average, the more successful you will be.  So, you should create detailed speaker agendas for meetings; use visual aids to guide meetings and even prepare scripts where appropriate.   In addition to making your volunteers more successful, this detailed guidance will also increase the likelihood of them completing assigned tasks.

The importance of collaboration as a means of reducing after-the-fact second guessing is discussed above. Collaboration has the added benefit of helping better guide board members through the fundraising process.  When volunteers are actively sharing their progress, you and their peers can provide them with up-to-the-minute advice.  This guidance will increase task completion and success rates.

A key element of proverbial hand holding is to actively celebrate each success with your board.  Make sure you find plenty of opportunities to praise board member successes.  Even if your board is comprised of senior business leaders, we all appreciate being appreciated.

Option C: Build the Board

In addition to proceeding without your board or cultivating their fundraising abilities, you can work to build the board with individuals ready and willing to take on fundraising.

The first step to building a fundraising board is to share your vision of what your organization could be if you achieved great fundraising success.   This approach is much more than explaining that fundraising is something expected of board members.   You want each member of the board member to buy-in to the vision of where you are going, and then buy-in to the step required to get there and their role in making it possible.

If you want to build a fundraising culture on your board — whether it be by recruiting new members or instilling a passion for fundraising in existing members — you will have much more success if you have a fundraising culture champion on the board.  This could be someone different than a board member assigned to lead fundraising oversight.  If you have a nominating committee of the board, it is important that your champion is on that committee.  Just like a staff person can accomplish things a peer cannot, a peer can achieve outcomes the staffer cannot. So, know when to use that person to build the team needed.

If you want to recruit more experts and people with specific passions to your board, one of the best means is to have a board committee structure that includes non-board members. These committees can then be used as fruitful recruiting ground for future board members.   Furthermore, volunteers on a development committee of the board will completely understand that fundraising is a board function if they are subsequently recruited to join the board proper.


There will always be organizations that have challenges in working with their boards when it comes to fundraising.   What you need to keep in mind about board members is that dealing with volunteers is not something that prevents you from doing your job — it is the job.  You need to be as creative in cultivating the support of the board as you would be with your most important potential donor.  With thought and care, you can create a board-staff relationship that is a model of success for others to follow.

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Have you been successful at building a winning fundraising culture on your board?  What techniques did you use to achieve success?  What challenges did you face?  Is there anything you wish you knew then that you know now?  Let us know in the comments below.