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Engaging Your Board in Sustainable Fundraising

By Dave Sternberg

(April 21, 2009) For many nonprofits, the concept of board engagement in fundraising is nothing new. In fact, they have probably heard about their role in fundraising so many times that telling them again is unlikely to get you the kind of response you envision.

“We’ve told them what they need to do!” you say. “We’ve even brought in outside speakers. So, why aren’t they doing it?” 

Well, stop telling them what they need to do and lead them through actually doing it. Take the time necessary to ensure that your assumptions about their abilities are correct by cultivating their skills over time. Furthermore, help them deal with their fears. Remember, most board members don’t want to be fundraisers—rather they want to be board members who are successful at fundraising.

An Active Role

Recently, one organization approached me saying that they continued receiving hollow promises from board members. Here was our approach.

We suggested they create a menu of fundraising activities and allow each board member to choose their role in fundraising. Some of these options included:

  • Hosting an event in their home for long-time donors or top prospects
  • Calling donors to say thank you
  • Accompanying staff on fundraising calls
  • Writing personal letters to peers asking for a contribution
  • Reviewing proposals to a funder
  • Recruiting new board members

Once each board member indicated how they would support the organization’s fundraising, we developed a board matrix of involvement to track their engagement. At each meeting every board member reviewed their progress. Why? Because disappointing you as staff is one thing, but board members are not crazy about disappointing their peers.   

To further stimulate the excitement around fundraising we arranged a few short term “wins”. The development staff talked with some of the organization’s closest supporters and pre-solicited a gift by discussing a potential gift amount over the phone. When the major gifts officer and board member went to the donor to seek the gift, the donor had been prepared and the board member was able to get his first “win”. This successful endeavor built his confidence to make other asks.

Hands-on Training

Another well-known organization requested a training session for their board. Staff indicated the board was not active in fundraising. During the training, it was clear the board not only knew their role in fundraising; they even knew some of the best practices. However, they lacked the knowledge of how to actually do it!  They had not been engaged by the staff and shown what fundraising actually felt like.

So the organization developed a portfolio approach with each board member. Every board member had five prospective donors and two existing donors to cultivate and steward over the next year. They spent time with the donor on the phone, in person and at the organization’s events. The development staff supported the board member throughout the process.

At the end of the year, it was clear that each board member was successful and enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with donors and colleagues. With a focused approach they felt ownership over these donors to ensure they were supportive of the organization’s mission. Better yet, they also were building lasting relationships that will benefit the organization in the years to come.   

These approaches to engaging your board will lead to greater long-term sustainability for your nonprofit organization, but making them work requires the staff to support activity from behind the scenes.

Finding the approaches that work best with your specific board is often the challenge. And, if you’re still not successful after employing some of these approaches, ultimately, you may have to find a different volunteer opportunity for those board members who are not willing or able to accept their role in fundraising.

Dave Sternberg is vice president and founding partner of Achieve LLC, an Indianapolis, Indiana-based consultancy providing fundraising, strategy and board counsel. These and other strategies can be found in Sternberg’s book Fearless Fundraising for Nonprofit Boards. Co-Author Nick Parkevich is the director of client development at Achieve.

More Resources

Fired Up Fundraising: Turn Board Passion into Action by Gail Perry (Part of the AFP Fund Development Series)

Boards That Make a Difference, Third Edition by John Carver

Click here for the full list of books on board engagement and board development from the AFP Bookstore!



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