Kay Sprinkel Grace

Recent Posts by Kay Sprinkel Grace:

Beware of “Truths” in Fundraising

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Counterintuitive is usually defined as something contrary to what one would intuitively expect. For example, marketing pros discovered long ago that the fewer choices we’re presented with, the more likely we are to actually choose one, whether it’s a lot full of new cars or a shelf full of pasta sauces in the supermarket.

Fundraising is often counterintuitive as well. Here I’ll share four instances. In my book, The Busy Volunteer’s Guide to Fundraising, you’ll find a fuller discussion of many others.

Four Questions to Ask Every Prospective Board Member

Often in our haste to meet a deadline for recruiting board members, we whisk through the interview process or forego it entirely, relying on what we know about individuals through other connections or word of mouth.

Even when we believe we’re thorough, we tend to focus on the obvious rather than broach topics that are often better predictors of successful board service.

Helping Your Board Spring to Life

Every organization dreams of recruiting and retaining a board of visionary planners,
generous investors, willing askers, and passionate pragmatists.

Despite these yearnings, too many boards are assembled without a strategy. Board selection is pushed by a date when a “slate” must be presented. Frenzied phone calls result in the inappropriate recruitment of people who may be well intentioned but not able to propel the organization to the next level.

When It Comes to Fundraising, Volunteers Get It Right ... and Sometimes Wrong

Not all volunteers are alike, of course, but many share misconceptions when it comes to fundraising. I could point to several dozen as I do in my book, The Busy Volunteer’s Guide to Fundraising. But here, I’ll focus on three that rear their heads time and again in my training sessions with boards and committees across America. 

The Top Three Things Volunteers Need to Know about Fundraising

In my new book, The Busy Volunteer’s Guide to Fundraising, I discuss a range of truths that must be understood and taken to heart by the dedicated volunteers who help us raise money for our worthy causes. Here I’ll single out just three of the many truths. 

Never Lose Sight of These Bedrock Fundraising Truths


While some fundraising truths are relative to a community or cause, others are absolute, in my opinion. The three discussed below have relevance wherever you are and whatever you do. You’ll find a fuller examination of these and other fundraising truths in my book, Fundraising Mistakes that Bedevil All Boards (and Staff Too).

Motivating Boards to Raise Money

When I work with boards, we inevitably get around to discussing the issue of fundraising. "How many of you really like asking for money?" I ask. On a great day, one-third of the hands will go up. On an average day, one-fourth or fewer. The others groan, smile with embarrassment, and then tell me why they don't like to ask for money.

Although their reasons are understandable, they beg the question. Boards are responsible for raising money, as I make clear in my books, The Ultimate Board Member's Book and Fundraising Mistakes That Bedevil All Boards.

If only a handful of people are willing to ask, what roles should the other board members play? How do you create a cohesive fundraising team? How do you get everyone engaged in developing donors and funds for your organization?

Drawing from my experience of working with thousands of board members over three decades, here's my prescription for motivating volunteers to raise money.

  1. It is my tough duty to reiterate to executive directors something they already know; getting 100 percent board member involvement in fundraising isn't going to happen. But I assure them that all is not lost.
  2. Board members who wince at the idea of fundraising can get fully engaged in donor development—which leads to an increase in fundraising. Strategic organizations can develop a process that provides opportunities for all board members—no exceptions—to be active in developing relationships with donors that will lead to gifts.
  3. The donor development approach relieves board members of the anxiety they feel about asking for money, and gives them opportunities to do things they feel confident about. Increased board engagement often follows. You'll also find that board members who had previously declined tend now to get involved in the overall fund development program—even in asking.
  4. Because I believe that systems liberate, I developed a program I call "AAA"—Ambassador, Advocate and Asker—that helps you level the playing field for your board's involvement in donor development and stimulate your overall success in fundraising. All board members agree to be trained ambassadors: no exceptions. A board member who's unwilling to speak accurately, positively, and enthusiastically about your organization shouldn't be on the board.

    Although only a few ambassadors may ever ask for a gift, their work in building relationships—the heart of fundraising, as you know—is the strongest piece of your development program. Ambassadors need training, coaching in the "elevator speech," and they should have a dynamic tool kit of information (including YouTube segments) about your organization. Typical ambassador activities are taking people to lunch, inviting them to events, hosting events—nothing that board members haven't been asked to do before.
  5. Advocates make the case. They accompany executive directors on calls to local government, foundation, or other institutional donors where a "sell" isn't required—just informed advocacy by someone who is adept at handling objections and is focused on results. Advocates are also skillful board recruiters and may be part of a speakers' bureau or perform other related tasks.
  6. Askers ask. The ways in which they ask include writing letters, adding notes to letters, making phone calls, or meeting donors face to face. One of the key points of this overall AAA strategy is that all board members receive training in the ask—even those who would rather, as one board member told me, have a root canal.
  7. Understand, AAA isn't an add-on to your already full plate. It's a simple tool that organizes the tasks of donor and fund development so that everyone on your board can play a role. Too often we make assignments based on what we believe volunteers should do, rather than on what they're motivated to do. I hear from board members all the time that they're "never asked to do anything." Our mistake is making things too broad: "help with fundraising," "help with the gala," "help with the annual fund"—without breaking down the tasks into doable actions.
  8. Successful board engagement also depends on acknowledging the roles each board member plays. Great ambassadors and advocates should be given equal recognition with effective askers. The result: total engagement by your board in donor and resource development.

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Kay Sprinkel Grace
© 2015, Emerson & Church, Publishers

Kay Sprinkel Grace is author of The Ultimate Board Member's Book, Fundraising Mistakes That Bedevil All Boards (and Staff Too), and Over Goal! For more information about AAA, e-mail Grace at

Questions I'm Most Often Asked about Boards and Fundraising

Boards and fundraising. It's a hot-button issue for almost everyone—from monolithic hospitals to closet-sized food pantries. In my years of consulting I've fielded hundreds if not thousands of questions on the subject. Here, I offer answers to the six questions I'm asked most often.

How can I get my board members to ask for money?

I don't believe you'll ever get all of your board members to ask. But it's certainly possible for everyone to play a role in development, as I make clear in The Ultimate Board Member's Book.

When I worked with the American Library in Paris, guiding a small capital campaign, one board member was responsible for our raising nearly a third of the goal. And she didn't ask for a penny herself. Instead, the money came from people she had kept in close touch with over the years. She said she couldn't ask them herself but was happy to let her friends know we'd be in touch. When I thanked her for her role, she apologized for not being able to ask. "You don't have to," I assured her. "Just keep doing what you're doing."

What's the best way to ask board members for their gifts?

First let me say that of all the methods I've observed, the group ask is the worst. You know the one I mean. At the start of the fiscal year, envelopes are placed on top of the board packet. The board chair points them out and asks members to write their checks or provide their credit cards before leaving. Other boards resort to e-mails and phone calls.

With people close to our organizations, we insult the relationship by asking them in this way. A far better approach is for the CEO and board chair, each year, to meet individually with board members and address three things: first, thank them for their service, review their involvement (committees and the like), and ask how they'd like to be involved in the coming year; second, ask if there are any issues they'd like to bring up relative to their current level of engagement—family or business matters that might keep them from being so involved, or areas of dissatisfaction with their board service; and third, ask them for their annual (and/or capital) gift in a way that models how you'd like them to ask others if or when they're assigned to do so. Board members are worth every minute we spend with them. Volunteers are unpaid not because they're worthless, but because they're priceless (Erma Bombeck).

My board won't provide names of potential donors—what can I do to encourage them to offer names of their connections?

This is a chronic problem, and I believe it's because board members aren't assured of the process you'll use to reach out to the names offered. Board members worry that a well-meaning development officer will immediately call the contact, use the board member's name, and ask for a gift.

In my experience, what helps is to review the full development process with the board before asking for anyone to open their address books. The four steps that precede the ask are ones in which the recommending board member can and should be involved: identification (providing names), qualification (giving insights about potential interests or funding level), development of strategy (who shall approach and how), and cultivation (inviting to lunches or events or putting on the e-mailing list).

Only if this process goes well does solicitation take place. Board members need to trust this process before they'll hand over names.

My board members think if they get their employer to give, that takes the place of their personal gifts.

This is the unfortunate fallout of an approach that gained favor with boards: "Give OR get." We made it sound as though you could either give yourself or get the money from elsewhere. That just doesn't work. As I say in my book, Over Goal, we need 100 percent participation from board members. It's "give AND get." Even when a board member's gift is modest, it's important for many foundation and individual funders to know that 100 percent of the board members are giving from their own resources as well as leveraging their employers to invest.

What's the best way to communicate to my board that before they ask, they need to make a gift themselves?

The language of solicitation is inclusive: "Join with us …" "Be part of our mission …" How can we say that if we ourselves haven't made a financial commitment? That's my philosophical response. But there's a practical one, too.

In my volunteer work, the donors I approach want to know what I'm doing for the campaign. They may not ask me the specific amount, but in one campaign where I played a leadership role I was able to say, "I've made the largest gift I've ever made to this organization, and I hope you'll consider doing the same." In another situation, when asking a donor for a "blended" gift (part outright, part as a planned gift) I was able to talk about my own blended gift and how meaningful it had been for me to structure it that way. We're hollow in our advocacy and our asking if we ourselves haven't made a commitment.

How do I find confident askers to join the board?

There are two sources of confident askers—one is more reliable than the other. The first is to identify those in your community who are known as great askers, who've raised money for other organizations, and are now joining yours. These are the ones I'm less confident about. I say this because it's difficult to assess the circumstances (at other organizations) that made them successful.

I believe the most confident askers are "home grown" individuals ignited with the passion for your mission, convinced of the financial integrity of the organization, trained in the "Big 3" (cultivation, solicitation, stewardship), are offered tasks in their confidence zone.

To me, growing your own is a better bet than thinking someone who was a notable success at the symphony with a large development support staff will also flourish in your food bank with minimum staff and a very different message.

© 2014, Emerson & Church Publishers

Kay Sprinkel Grace is the author of The Ultimate Board Member's Book, Fundraising Mistakes That Bedevil All Boards (and Staff Too), and Over Goal! She is a prolific writer, creative thinker, inspiring speaker, and reflective practitioner. Her passion for philanthropy and its capacity to transform donors, organizations, and communities is well known in the United States and internationally.

Cultivating the Ultimate Board: Interview with Kay Sprinkel Grace

Kay Sprinkel Grace, author of The Ultimate Board Member's Book, recently spoke with her publisher about nonprofit boards. GuideStar has published an excerpt from the book, and we're pleased to be able to share Ms. Grace's additional thoughts with you.

What's the most common mistake organizations make when recruiting board members?

Not fully describing what's expected in terms of their role and responsibilities. Too often we understate expectations because we want people to serve. That's self-defeating. Full disclosure from the beginning will bring you amazingly dedicated and committed board members. By the same token, understating the requirements ("You only have to come to meetings—the staff does everything else") will backfire and create resentment.

Cite the most important question an organization should ask a candidate before inviting him or her to serve?

Is ours a mission you care about or have passion for? A person can be a Cracker Jack lawyer, accountant, or marketing guru, but if their heart isn't in synch with your mission, you won't find the commitment you need. I've seen boards that have shifted too far toward pragmatism and away from the passion. In my view, the ideal candidate is a "passionate pragmatist."

Give us three adjectives describing the ideal board member.

Curiosity is first, it's something I treasure in board members. I love when they question reports and want to know more. Board members also need the courage to speak up. Far too many boards skim through the budget review, and then, later, are dismayed about allocations or goals that were too ambitious in the first place. Being candid shouldn't be hard, but frequently board members are more conscious of what they think their role is rather than how they feel about an issue or decision.

You say in The Ultimate Board Member's Book that board meetings should always include a "mission moment." What do you mean?

In the middle of the meeting—so as to catch the latecomers and the early leavers—a person (or persons) who have benefited from your services is asked to come and share for 5 to 10 minutes what the organization has meant to them or their family. More often than not, it's a moving experience—sometimes a tear-inducing one. Certainly "mission moments" are motivating.

Say I'm a board member. Sure, I read what's sent to me, I attend meetings, and I ask a question or two. But tell me other things I can do to improve my contribution.

Model leadership at board meetings by being prepared, courageous, candid—and cooperative when decisions are made that aren't your first choice. If you disagree with something, state why; if you're an advocate for the proposed decision, explain why. And take responsibility. For example, if you want to add an event to increase revenues, what will YOU do to support that event and how will YOU engage other board members? Handing it all back to staff is feckless.

In your opinion, the number one way to improve board meetings is ...

Throw a meaty topic on the table and let board members use their brains and experience to make a real contribution. Recently I was at a board meeting where this is done regularly. The climate has gone from tolerable to enjoyable—all because of the way the chair engages the members during the discussions and at the end, when she asks what's their biggest takeaway from the meeting. It's been amazing to watch. Board members now come much more prepared and eager to participate.

For years we've heard about the three Ws—work, wealth, and wisdom—that board members should be recruited on the basis of these. Is this still a good prescription?

I imagine that underneath all the recruitment practices, these criteria still exist. We may not use those words on the recruitment matrix, but we still think of them. My "rule of thirds" is that one-third of your board should have your organization as their top philanthropic priority; one-third should have your organization as one of their top three philanthropic priorities; and one-third will be on your board for other reasons—that is where the wealth over wisdom and work people reside!

You've worked with boards for more than three decades. What dramatic changes have you seen over the years?

It's a major concern of mine that boards aren't keeping up with the changes in our donors and in the marketplace. Too many boards are risk averse, operating from fear rather than dreams. They believe "getting back to zero"—balancing the budget—is cause for champagne at the end of the year. Young people who come on our boards are often disappointed; as are Baby Boomers in their "encore careers" who are looking for solutions to problems they've observed for decades. Our impact will shrink if we persist in a narrow view that's characterized by one-hour board meetings, no action, no dream, no risk taking, and insufficient assessment of the world outside our windows.

Most of us know that boards should evaluate their own performance. But do you find this to be a common practice?

Increasingly it is. I have more requests for sample board self-evaluations than ever. It's all part of the increased focus on performance metrics. Just as donors want to know our programmatic impact, board members are interested in their performance as well. Also, some funders are showing concern for how we assess board performance.

Deadwood—it's not a pretty thing. Has anyone found an easy way to "de-enlist" a board member who just doesn't perform?

I'm bullish on yearly meetings, where the board chair and CEO meet with each board member individually. This allows you to monitor disappointment, non-performance, or frustrations before they get severe. Sometimes, we put up roadblocks to people's engagement (inconvenient meeting times, ill-chosen assignments) and we need to hear about those and make adjustments. Other than that, probably the best way to prevent deadwood is to enforce term limits. If a board member isn't performing after the initial three-year term, ask that person to step down or find another role (committee, advisory board) for him or her.

© 2013, Emerson & Church Publishers.

Kay Sprinkel Grace is also the author of Over Goal! and Fundraising Mistakes That Bedevil All Boards as well as a regular contributor to Contributions Magazine. She is a prolific writer, creative thinker, inspiring speaker, and reflective practitioner. Her passion for philanthropy and its capacity to transform donors, organizations, and communities is well known in the United States and internationally.

Meeting Yearly with Individual Board Members Bears Fruit

Excerpted from the newly revised edition of The Ultimate Board Member's Book: A 1-Hour Guide to Understanding and Fulfilling Your Role and Responsibilities

Chances are your board chair and CEO have never conducted yearly meetings with individual board members.

When introduced to the idea, many ask the logical question, "Why?" They feel their board is functioning well, members are giving, and people seem pleased with their committee or task force assignments. All's well in the world.

Even if that's true, a yearly meeting with each board member will both improve motivation and often increase their financial contributions.

Organizations that resist individual meetings cite time as the consideration. Board members won't care to spend an extra hour this way, they believe. My 30 years of experience refutes this. And, if someone really resists, there's no need to press further.

Here's what is to be gained from an individual meeting. Judge for yourself whether it's worth the time:

  • A confidential forum for board members to express their concerns, desires, or issues.
  • An opportunity to determine, with the organization's leadership, the nature and extent of their involvement for the coming year.
  • Positive feedback for their current involvement and encouragement to stay involved in the most productive way.
  • A personal solicitation of their gift that models the asking process they may be called upon to emulate one day.

In my opinion, the benefit of such a meeting can't be overstated. Yes, and there's one other critical reason for this get-together: it offers a gracious opportunity to "de-enlist" when necessary.

Sometimes, even a once-stellar board member no longer performs. And, too often, we let this slide for months or years. We rationalize for him—after all, he's a volunteer—and tend to make excuses long after we should.

Possibly the most challenging decision board members ever make is determining when and how to de-enlist one of their colleagues.

As necessary as the action might be, board members hesitate. They're concerned, rightly, about the person's feelings and how the fallout might affect the organization's reputation. What we fail to factor in, however, is that most uninvolved board members are looking for a gracious way out.

If your board chair and CEO are willing to meet annually with each board member, the angst over de-enlistment will dissipate. This is the best opportunity, in private, to ask why the person's involvement has declined.

Very often, a board member will confess that she's lost interest, has an ill spouse, a new and demanding job, or other such personal and pressing matters. At that moment, the board chair and CEO can thank the person for her service, acknowledge the current situation with regret, and offer her the opportunity to step down, perhaps temporarily, until circumstances have changed.

Once in a while, a board member whose de-enlistment seemed certain will even turn things around (probably due to the special attention received).

It's important to prune deadwood on a board. But it's also key to discover why the wood is dying. Only then can you prune correctly, or water and witness new growth.

Kay Sprinkel Grace
© 2013, Emerson & Church, Publishers. Excerpted from The Ultimate Board Member's Book: A 1-Hour Guide to Understanding and Fulfilling Your Role and Responsibilities, newly revised edition. Excerpted with permission.

Kay Sprinkel Grace is also the author of Over Goal! and Fundraising Mistakes That Bedevil All Boards as well as a regular contributor to Contributions Magazine. She is a prolific writer, creative thinker, inspiring speaker, and reflective practitioner. Her passion for philanthropy and its capacity to transform donors, organizations, and communities is well known in the United States and internationally.

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