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Board Wrinkles: The Questions I'm Most Often Asked

I wrote a book about it, but darn it not everyone in the country has read The Fundraising Habits of Supremely Successful Boards. [Editor's note: see the list on the right for excerpts from the revised edition of this book.]

I still am asked for solutions to a host of board problems: "How do I fix this? How do I fix that?"quot; And invariably I'm cornered just as I'm rushing to make another flight.

In the brief space I'm given here, let me answer the five questions that come up most often.

  1. What's the single most important trait I should look for in prospective board members?

    By far, devotion is the most important.

    When I find men and women who are ho-hum about their organization, I gently suggest they move on to something they can give their heart to.

    You don't want directors who sit on a board. You want those who serve, who become cheerleaders for your vision and dreams.

    Months ago I was at a cocktail party. You know the scenario. We had gathered 50 or so of the college's most likely donors. For the first time, they were hearing about the bold plans for a new library.

    About midway through, I saw Peter (a director) who had cornered a would-be donor against the wall. Peter was vigorously gesturing and chatting away. I knew what he was doing. He was being a roaring advocate for the project.

    To make such advocacy easier, here's something I recommend.

    Print business cards for your board members. On one side put the name of your organization and its mission. On the other, the name of the director with all necessary information for making a contact.

    I've known directors who give these out by the dozens. It serves.

  2. How do I get board members to contribute financially?

    In today's world, it's unthinkable a board member wouldn't give.

    I work with many organizations where there's a minimum amount directors are asked to give. Yes, I know, I hear all the time that some board members are selected to ensure community representation or specific skills they can bring to the table. I understand that. These individuals may not meet the minimum of giving—but they should still be expected to give generously.

    I like what Claremont College does. Every board member is asked to give one year's tuition. That could be translated up or down for any organization. It also gives a clear picture of how the gift is used. In the case of Claremont, I particularly like it because each year the amount goes up!

    In another organization I work with, board members are expected to give a minimum of 1 percent of the organization's annual giving goal for the year.

  3. How can I get board members to make personal visits?

    This is the toughest nut, since directors don't routinely queue up to ask for gifts.

    In this short space, I can't go into the details—my book Asking lays out the strategy to use with your board.

    But one thing you want to make unmistakably clear is that no board member need venture out alone. A staff person or another director will always be at their side, if they wish.

    What is perhaps most critical is that the board member secure the appointment. Once that's done, you're 85 percent on your way to getting the gift.

  4. How do I deal with poor attendance at meetings?

    I called on the Meadows Foundation in Dallas. Kurt Meadows told me, "Your proposal is excellent. It's exactly what we fund. Now I just need a certified copy of your board attendance for the last 18 months."

    "18 months? Certified? Why?" I ask.

    "If your attendance isn't at least 75 percent, we won't consider your application," he tells me.

    At first I thought this was severe. But on reflection, I could see that if a board doesn't care enough to attend meetings, why should the foundation show interest?

    Having said that, however, please understand that it's up to the staff to make a board meeting productive.

    Shortly after a recent board meeting, I approached a director who we were pretty certain would be making a gift of $5 million.

    We chatted a bit. Then, after a few minutes, Rahib said: "Jerry, I'm going to resign from the board."

    "Why? You seem so interested in the work of the hospital."

    "I come to meetings regularly. But nothing ever happens. It's all just show and tell. It's the three Bs buildings, budgets, and baloney.

    I was deflated like a punctured balloon. I was seeing my $5 million gift sputter out.

  5. How do I get board members to speak up?

    I think back when Bill Bennett was Reagan's secretary of education. Early in his tenure, he came under severe attack. The teacher's unions were after him, the media was after him, and parents were after him.

    At one of his first Cabinet meetings, Reagan pulled out a file and started to read out loud some of the headlines. "Bennett, a dunce in the classroom." "Bennett, the traitor of the second term." "Bennett must be fired." "Bennett has to go."

    Reagan folded the last clipping and tucked it back in the file. Then he said, "Now that's Bill Bennett's first three weeks in office. What's wrong with the rest of you?"

    There are times a director has to speak his or her mind, take a position, and perhaps be all alone. That's one of the responsibilities.

    If you don't speak up, you constrict your value to the organization. There are times you just have to say, "Our baby is ugly."

Excerpts from The Fundraising Habits of Supremely Successful Boards

  • Getting a Donor to See You: 11 Suggestions from a Master Fundraiser
  • Three Fundraising Habits of Supremely Successful Boards

Board-Wrinkles-The-Questions-Im-Most-Often-Asked_Jerold-Panas.jpgJerold Panas
© 2014, Emerson and Church, Publishers

Jerold Panas is the author of Asking: A 59-Minute Guide to Everything Board Members, Volunteers, and Staff Must Know to Secure the Gift; The Fundraising Habits of Supremely Successful Boards; and Mega Gifts: Who Gives Them, Who Gets Them.

Topics: Board Development