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If a shout doesn’t work, try a whisper -- effectively deepening board engagement

“My board is not engaged enough in fund raising” is a prime complaint of executive directors and development officers. It even outranks “our donor database is a mess” and “we are expected to raise more money every year”! Everyone in the non profit world would like to have the perfect board. That fictitious board everyone covets is populated by corporate heavyweights and trust-fund-endowed socialites, who write big checks and enlist their friends as donors.

Paul Jolly Paul Jolly

This is the way the discouragement often settles in. At a board meeting, the invitation will be issued, something like: “If we are going to succeed in fundraising this year, everyone has to sell ten tickets to the gala.” The response is either (a) silence, (b) the same few tired stalwarts raise their hands or (c) some exasperated board member blurts “That’s not why I joined this board. I am not a fundraiser. No one told me I would have to raise money. Isn’t that the staff’s job? Blah blah blah.”

The problem with this scenario is not that the board is populated with the wrong kind of people. The problem is the delivery of the request. Maybe someone on the board is itching to make some introductions to affluent and generous people. So why doesn’t she speak up?

  • Maybe she was secretly checking her smartphone when the question was raised.
  • Maybe she is modest and doesn’t want to outshine other board members.
  • Maybe she doesn’t believe trying to sell tickets to her friends is the best approach.
  • Maybe she has been burned by other organizations that were clumsy and crass in approaching her friends, and she needs assurance that anyone she introduces will be treated respectfully.

Here is a seven-stage sequence for getting out of the no-one-wants-to-help zone. The first four steps are internal, the last three conversational.

  1. Realize that the perfect board you covet does not exist. Don’t waste time wishing. Start building with what you have.
  1. Kindle hope in your soul that there may be untapped potential for support among the people who currently serve on your board, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Trust me on this, just for a little while.
  1. Acknowledge that the loudest and gloomiest voices probably do not speak for everyone. Don’t allow them to color your perception of the board as a whole.
  1. Think about who your most committed and dynamic board members are, and the unique gifts each of them members brings to the party. Can you come up with three or four or five who you think might have some good ideas and who will follow through on what they promise?
  1. Sit down and talk with those visionary board members, one at a time. Ask what they want to do to support the organization in the coming year. Have a checklist of options to discuss with them. Make sure there are ways they can show their friends the good work of the organization without soliciting a gift. It may be as simple as hosting a dinner party for a mix of existing and potential donors.
  1. Consider the visionaries a vanguard who will set the pace for the rest of the board. They will ignite the enthusiasm of their peers. Once you have empowered the leaders, the rest of the board will sort themselves into followers and non-players. Especially if you brag at every meeting about every board member’s efforts.
  1. Look for new board members. This is the last step instead of the first, because jumping to recruitment before you kindle a spark of engagement would not change anything. The newcomers will look to oldtimers to see how things are done. And, if they do jump in with both feet, it will reinforce the feeling of current board members that fundraising is someone else’s job or skill.

You can probably tell by now I am not a fan of one-size-fits-all “give or get” policies. There are several reasons for this. First, such policies focus the staff’s energy on the laggards instead of the superstars. Second, the board members that can give the most are probably best situated to get the most as well. Finally, everyone has different skills, talents, financial capacities and networks. Variety on a board is a good thing. If you encourage each board member to mobilize their gifts for the benefit of the organization, it will be a new day.

Your board is awesome. They may be tired. But they care. No one is obligated to serve on a non profit board. So find ways that each of them can get engaged. Separate ways for each of them, because each is unique.

The preceding is a guest post by our regular contributor Paul Jolly, founder of Jump Start Growth, Inc. Paul worked as a fund raising professional for over 20 years before starting the consulting firm Jump Start Growth. He began his career serving various Quaker institutions, then moved to The Wilderness Society, and then the American Civil Liberties Union. In every instance, he has zeroed in on gifts from individuals at the top of the giving pyramid. The focus of Paul’s consulting work is bringing sophisticated major gifts fund raising practices to organizations that are outside of the philanthropic mainstream. His successes include leading three capital campaigns for organizations new to major gifts fund raising, securing millions of dollars in bequest and planned gift commitments, and bringing new life and laser-sharp focus to disheartened development departments.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice