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Beyond “Give and Get:” How Nonprofit Board Performance Affects Fundraising

May 2, 2018

By Darryl Mori

For many fundraising professionals, the concept of "give and get" is a constant concern. 

Their nonprofits' board members are obligated to give and get donations—or get off the board. But too often, little or none of that happens.

Revenues fall short and the development directors get blamed—by their boards or chief executives, or both. The landmark 2013 study by CompassPoint's Jeanne Bell and Marla Cornelius, "UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising," revealed this leads to a "vicious cycle" that pervades the nonprofit sector. Frustrated fundraisers quit or get fired after short tenures. Relationships with donors suffer. Nonprofits don't raise the money they need and become financially unstable, making it even harder for the next fundraiser who steps in. 

Grant funders can raise the stakes. One prominent foundation in Southern California, for example, expects grant applicants to have 100-percent participation from their boards in annual giving. When the foundation finds applicants not in compliance, it asks for the names of the non-giving board members and for an explanation of why those board members did not contribute to the cause they are supposedly leading.

Given these circumstances, it's understandable that fundraisers often agonize over whether their boards "give and get." The issue can be so consuming that it prevents them from seeing their boards through any other lens.

Staying Focused—or Missing a Bigger Picture? 

Board members have a lot of other responsibilities beyond fundraising. Their scope is necessarily much broader. Evaluating the chief executive. Guiding the organization's strategic direction. Setting policies. Monitoring finances and legal matters. The list goes on.

Fundraisers juggle a lot too. Budgets. Organizing events. Scheduling and rescheduling appointments. Perhaps there's that important thank you letter he/she has been intending to write to a major donor, and it's already been a couple of weeks since the gift was received.

Amid the rush of activity, some fundraisers may be hard-pressed to recall all of the board's responsibilities. Does that matter? It's ultimately only the board's performance on one key aspect—the "give and get"—that's relevant for the development staff. Right?

Let's consider why that may be wrong, and how development professionals may be missing opportunities to help their organizations excel. 

Board Governance: All Roads Lead to Fundraising

Serving on a nonprofit board means embracing a variety of duties, from the weighty to the mundane. But nearly all can have direct or indirect effects on fundraising. Here are some examples.

Monitoring the organization's finances:

  • This is perhaps an obvious one. Imagine if your board didn't have anyone with adequate skills to understand your nonprofit's financial situation. Say the organization is taking on unsustainable levels of debt, and word of this gets out to your community. Would this affect your ability to fundraise?
  • If the organization's budget (including your development budget) had to undergo drastic cuts, how might that affect your fundraising?
  • Conversely, how might a strong, fiscally sound organization appeal to a potential donor?

Strategic Planning:

  • Has your board guided and adopted a compelling, sound, multiyear strategic plan for the organization's future that you can share with donors?
  • If it hasn't, do you have board members who are good with strategy and planning? Do the board members seem engaged and interested in the organization's bigger-picture strategies—enough to want to support them with personal contributions?
  • If asked by a donor, can your board members speak thoughtfully for more than a couple of sentences about where the organization is headed and how it will get there?

Maintaining structure and standards for board members' service:

  • Does your board have term limits, and are they honoring them? BoardSource's 2017 national survey of nonprofit board practices, Leading with Intent, found that 72 percent of boards now have limits on the number of consecutive terms that board members can serve. This is nearly double the number from BoardSource's 1994 survey.
  • Do you have poorly performing board members who don't contribute, or even show up for meetings, yet still remain on the board?
  • For great board members whose terms expire, do you have ways of keeping them engaged and supportive? And does your organization have a way of making their institutional knowledge accessible to newer or less experienced board members?

Recruiting and orienting new board members:

  • Does your organization plan for leadership succession? Are you training/grooming future board members or chairs in fundraising?
  • Does your board have a governance committee actively scanning for talented and qualified new board members? If so, are you confident the committee members know what to look for—and that these new recruits will be good partners to you in fundraising?
  • If board members are willing to suggest new potential donors, do you have guidelines to help them assess prospects? And do you have a process for them to reach you and for you to respond?
  • Is the diversity of your board reflective of the constituency your organization serves? Are there diverse communities of particular relevance (or potential) that your leadership is overlooking?
  • Are you involved in training/orienting new board members in both fundraising and donor stewardship? Do you know the individual interests/passions of each board member, and how these intersect with your nonprofit's mission? 

Running meetings:

  • Are your board meetings boring and unproductive? For example, do the board members spend more time reviewing the draft minutes of the last meeting than discussing urgent new issues?
  • Or are the meetings engaging and thought-provoking, tapping into board members' expertise and their passions for the mission?
  • Do your board members have the ability to handle dominant personalities and/or reticent ones in discussions?
  • Whether good or bad, think about how the quality of meetings may affect board members' enthusiasm as individual donors and external advocates/solicitors.

Assessing their own performance and holding themselves accountable for improvements:

  • Having board members assess their own performance as a group as well as their performance as individual board members are leading practices in nonprofit governance. But in particular, does your board assess its own performance in fundraising? The Leading with Intent study revealed that both nonprofit board chairs and chief executives agreed (64% and 67% respectively) that fundraising is one of areas of boards' performance most needing improvement.
  • Excellent boards hold themselves accountable for addressing their weaknesses. Do your board members foster healthy conversations about their challenges and work toward identifying steps they can take to improve their efforts in fundraising? And are you doing all you can to help them?

A New View of "Give and Get"

In any nonprofit, fundraising is part of a delicate ecosystem. For fundraising to be successful many interdependent elements within the organization need to be healthy—and nearly all of these can be affected by the board.

When boards aren't giving/getting, it can be an indicator of other (and larger) issues needing attention. Just trying to address the "give and get" without also looking at other aspects of governance may lead fundraisers to overlook some significant variables. 

The time is now for fundraisers to become better versed in board governance. In Southern California and also nationally (as indicated in Leading with Intent), boards are coming under increased scrutiny. Donors, policymakers, charity watchdogs and others are continually looking for ways to evaluate nonprofits' work and seeing nonprofit leadership as overdue for accountability.

The Governance-Savvy Fundraiser

As a starting exercise, try listing five of your board's responsibilities other than fundraising. Then think about how these might affect fundraising. Think holistically, in terms of major and minor responsibilities and how these may have positive or negative effects, or direct or indirect effects. 

BoardSource offers more comprehensive resources for learning leading practices in governance. These include training-the-trainers workshops geared toward nonprofit professionals who already have a working knowledge of governance but wish to become more effective facilitators. AFP also has an available collection of articles and white papers about board practices.

Fundraising professionals are crucial to nonprofits and often well situated to observe strengths and weaknesses in an organization's board. Through thoughtful collaboration they can help boards to become even better and more effective—leading to stronger organizations that benefit us all.

About the Author

A longtime member of AFP, Darryl Mori is a nonprofit fundraising professional and writer with more than 20 years of experience in the Greater Los Angeles region. He currently serves as senior director of foundation and government relations at ArtCenter College of Design. He is the co-founder of the Arts Grants Roundtable, a coalition of more than 30 Southern California arts organizations. In 2017, he earned a Certificate of Nonprofit Board Consulting from BoardSource.

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