Engaging Board Members in Fundraising
A common challenge faced by fundraisers is engaging board members productively in fundraising. The emphasis is on productively. After all, our organizations do not need board members selecting napkin colors for a gala or organizing a restaurant night. Our organizations need board members who truly embrace their role in fundraising and are engaged at an appropriate level.
Engaging board members in fundraising starts with education. Unless someone seeks out educational opportunities or readings, no one receives training on how to be a good board member. Much of the learning is through practice, and if someone learns the “how to’s” on a dysfunctional board, it’s more of a case of what not to do. Educating board members on fundraising expectations and how to help is critical to an organization’s financial success.
Start with recruitment. When recruiting a new board member, be upfront about your organization’s expectations for fundraising. Is there a minimum annual gift expected? Are board members expected to buy a table at a gala and/or a foursome at a golf outing? Are they expected to host events to introduce their networks to your organization? Are they expected to help with solicitations? The clearer you are upfront, the easier it is for those who do not want to be engaged to graciously decline.
In the real world, a bigger challenge than recruiting new board members with the right fundraising mindset is changing the mindset of existing board members—board members who may have been recruited without any fundraising expectations. What do you do about this constituency? You recruit a board champion. Maybe it’s your board chair or development committee chair, but it doesn’t have to be. It does have to be a board member.
Recruit a champion who understands the board’s role in fundraising and is willing to set a positive example for other board members and ensure they understand what is expected and how to help with fundraising. The change doesn’t happen overnight. It may take a few election cycles to allow for those who do not want to participate productively in fundraising to rotate off.
It’s important not to make exceptions for board members who refuse to participate in fundraising. Everyone can help in a way suitable for their personality and skills. The trick is educating board members on ways they can help and specifics for how to help. It’s not enough just to lay out expectations and hope that they are fulfilled. Board members most likely have never been trained how to fundraise. They’re also probably scared that they will be asked to cold call strangers and set up appointments to ask the strangers for major gifts. You have to help them overcome these fears and equip them with the tools they need to be successful fundraisers.
If you break down the steps in the fundraising process—prospect identification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship—it’s not all about asking for money. There are many ways board members can help with fundraising without making a single ask. Tell them this. It helps reduce anxiety.
Prospect identification. Can board members introduce a specified number of their contacts to your organization? It can help to start with a small number of qualified prospects. A good way to think about this to ask board members to brainstorm friends/colleagues/neighbors/etc. who seem like they might be interested in the cause and if they were interested enough could make a gift of $1,000 or more annually. Even this can sound daunting, but frame it as someone who, if they absolutely loved your organization, could afford $83 per month. Everyone knows at least five people who fit these criteria.
After your board members have identified who they can introduce to your organization, help make it easy for them to do the introduction. Can you offer a pre-organized tour? Help the board member organize a house party? Do what you can to help come up with ways to engage these new prospects other than just adding them to your mailing list.
Cultivation. For either prospects they’ve identified or others, board members can help with “friend-raising.” Can they help make introductions? For example, can board members connect you to the right contact at their companies to discuss corporate sponsorships? Can they set up a coffee meeting for you with a prospect they know that you’d like to get to know better?
With cultivation it’s important to make sure board members are knowledgeable enough about your organization’s work to share your story with others. Coach them so they can articulate answers to the following questions:
- Why does your organization exist?
- What difference would it make if your organization went away?
- Why does your organization need donations?
- Where exactly does the money go?
- How many people are helped through your organization’s programs?
- Who is a typical member? Visitor? Program participant? Client? Patient? Donor? Volunteer? Etc.
Solicitation. In a perfect world, all board members would be involved in making in-person asks for major gifts. In the real world, it’s a rare board member who will do this. Can your board members accompany you on an ask? Can your board members sign personalized direct mail letters? Start small for easier wins and to allow board members to build confidence. Make sure other board members know who is stepping up. Have your champions share their success stories with other board members to encourage them to engage more.
Stewardship. This is one of the least scary ways to engage board members in fundraising. Have them make thank you calls to donors or write personal notes of appreciation. It’s so much more meaningful for donors to hear from a board member or volunteer than from staff. By connecting to donors, your board members will also feel closer to your organization and mission.
If you’re not the CEO, get your CEO on board with productively engaging your board with fundraising. You can’t succeed in this goal without support from your CEO. The CEO needs to back you up when you and your board champion take steps to change your fundraising culture. The tone from the top is critical.
Educating and supporting board members in fundraising is crucial to success.
Identify a fundraising champion among your board members to help engage others.
Board fundraising is more than sharing names and making asks.
Stephanie Cory, CAP®, CFRE
Philanthropy & Governance Consultant
Faculty, Principles of Fundraising Course, AFP-GPC & Villanova University
Vice President Programs, AFP Brandywine Chapter
Co-Chair, Publishing & Information Resources Committee, AFP International
Member, Conference Education Advisory Committee, AFP International