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Ask Andrea: Board Members and Donors


Hello, and welcome to the second blog post in which I answer your questions about fundraising! I’ll select interesting or frequent or thought-provoking questions each month and write my answers to them in this forum on the third Thursday of every month.

Do you have a question to ask me? Email me, Andrea Kihlstedt, at for your chance to be featured in the column! (Unless you’d like me to mention you in person, I’ll change all names to protect the innocent!)

Now, let’s get to the first questions:

Dear Andrea,

How can I find some major donors? None of our board members have big bucks, and they don’t know people who do. Which leaves us stuck in limbo. How can we start a major gifts program when we don't know anyone who can give a major gift?


Hi Betsy,

You’re not alone! Lots of people who work with small organizations are certain that they don’t have access to major donors. And many feel daunted by even the idea of reaching out to wealthy individuals.

Yes, it helps if one or more folks in your nonprofit are on first-name terms with one (or more) wealthy folks. But if not, you can still build relationships with such people – it just takes a bit more time.

Here are three simple suggestions:

1. Take field trips! In other words, take one or more tours of your community's donor walls. Come armed with a camera or your phone and get pictures of them. The best walls to visit are the ones belonging to organizations that serve your community at large as opposed to private schools or colleges. Make yourself familiar with the names at these higher giving levels – and if you see one or more that appear on wall after wall, make a point of getting to know those people!

2. Make a practice of inviting your community's leaders to your board meetings to talk about their experiences. Do this at every meeting and not only will your board learn a lot, but the speakers you invite will get to know your organization – and some of them might turn out to be interested in your cause and become major donors.

3. Your board members may think that they don't have any wealthy acquaintances, but that's probably not true. With that in mind, get them together for an old-fashioned brainstorming session. For free exercise you can do with your board, go to Train Your Board and sign up for the free downloadable exercises.

These three simple steps will help you kick-start your efforts to meet and create relationships with the wealthy prospects in your community. And don't be nervous about reaching out to them!

As my wise mother used to say, “Even rich people put on their pants one leg at a time!”

Dear Andrea,

One of the board members of my theatre company has the ability and interest to give large gifts, but she’s frustrated because the board isn't well run. Our theatre is run by it’s founder. He’s great at many things, but organizing and leading a board of directors isn't one of them. What can I do? Thanks so much.


Hi Riva,

You have my sympathy! Much as I love people who start new things, they often end up holding their nonprofits back if they stay in a leadership role for too long.

It's definitely a challenging problem, because firing a nonprofit's founder is about as easy as firing your mother-in-law.

But there's another way. Meet with your founder privately and ask him to make a list of everything he loves to do – and everything he hates doing. Once the lists are complete, I'm betting that the tasks on the “Hate” list, taken together, would make a great job description for an Executive Director.

Then, approach your wealthy board member and ask her if she’d fund the position, at least in part, for the first year or two.

That’ll leave your founder doing what he loves doing — theatre — and will give someone else the authority to take on the necessary tasks that aren't your founder's strong suit.

I hope this helps, Riva. A solution might be right around the corner.

Dear Andrea,

I just spent a couple of days in Florida with one of our major donors. I meant to ask for a gift, but then I got scared. Yup. Cold feet! I just couldn’t bring myself to bring up the subject of giving in the middle of what felt like a visit between friends. I left without saying anything, and now I feel awful. I missed an opportunity, all because I just couldn’t figure out what to say.

Two questions here:

1. How should I have brought it up?

2. What can I do to rectify the situation?


Missed My Chance

Dear Missed My Chance,

Wow! You just wimped out, didn’t you? But don’t fret, because you're far from alone. I’ll bet lots of people reading this are remembering one (or more!) times when they found themselves doing the exact same thing.

Here’s what I think you could have said: “Don and Jen, I feel a bit awkward bringing this up because we’re such good friends. Would it be okay if we talked just a bit about fundraising for my organization? I think I’d kick myself if I got home and didn’t raise the subject.”

That’s a permission question. You’re just asking for permission to broach the subject. Then see what happens and follow their lead.

Easy peasy.

But that’s not what you did. So what should you do now?

Send an email saying what’s true. For example, you might say something like this. “Don and Jen, I had such a fantastic time with you last week. But when I got home, I realized that I hadn’t even brought up the subject of fundraising and your gift. And now I realize that you might have been curious about what’s going on.

Were you waiting for me to say something about it? And wondering why I didn’t?

I won’t feel right until we have a chance to talk about it. How about if I call you tomorrow morning?”

Of course, the tone of your message will have to reflect you and not me, but you get the idea. Say what’s real. You almost never go wrong that way.

Let me know what happens. And next time, try asking a permission question to get the conversation started while you’re there.

What fundraising questions do you have? Send your questions to Andrea at


Andrea Kihlstedt, author and co-founder, Andrea Kihlstedt loves to give fundraising advice and has given lots of it over her 30+ years in the fundraising business. She’s a writer, speaker and trainer on fundraising. She’s has written four books on fundraising. She lives in New York City and provides training and coaching to people in the early stages of planning capital campaigns. You can find her at Capital Campaign Magic.



Topics: Fundraising