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Challenge Your Board, Raise More Money


You're probably familiar with the challenge or matching gift. A generous donor provides a gift or grant on the condition that you raise an equal amount from other sources.

These gifts often require a one-to-one match. Each donation you receive is matched dollar for dollar by the donor, though other ratios are possible.

If you listen to public radio anywhere in the United States, you've heard this appeal a thousand times. "Gerry Generous has pledged $5,000, but only if we raise an additional $5,000 in the next hour. Please give now!"

Challenge gifts are a classic fundraising tactic because they work. Why? The pitch includes two irresistible components. Good value for the donor—"Double your money! Your gift of $50 becomes $100!" Plus a deadline that creates a sense of urgency.

Use Challenge Gifts to Inspire Action

In recent years, the concept of the challenge has expanded to include other metrics. The donor provides a contribution if you meet different benchmarks, not just dollars raised.

For example, I volunteer for a grassroots organization in my community. One of our donors wanted to help broaden our base of support, so he pledged $15,000 on the condition that we recruit 30 new donors in 60 days, regardless of the amount they gave.

This was a great motivator. We had a measurable goal, a deadline, and a pitch: "Gifts of all sizes move us closer to a big donation. Will you help?"

How can you use this principle to better engage your board in fundraising? Here are two great examples.

How to Train Your Board—Even If They Don't Want to Be Trained

A friend in Iowa had been to several of my fundraising workshops and heard I was returning to lead another. She really, really wanted her board to attend, but they expressed little interest.

So she got creative. She identified two donors who pledged $500 each on the condition that 9 out of 10 board members attended the training. (Notice the specific benchmark: 9 out of 10.)

She brought this challenge to the board with a bit of humor. "If nine of you will show up, we'll receive $1000 just because you're in the room. You don't have to participate. You can sit in the back and scowl for three hours, but you have to be there or we can't collect the money."

Well, they came, they participated, and I didn't notice any scowls. The best part? They wouldn't leave the room. When the training was over, they huddled in the back and started strategizing. With nine board members present, they had critical mass and wanted to start applying what they had just learned.

Let's be honest: what motivated the board was bribery. But because the bribe went to the organization, rather than individual board members, no laws or ethical standards were broken. They were simply given an incentive to participate, and they rose to the challenge.

Donors Aren't Scary ... Are They?

A colleague of mine, a development director, was struggling to convince her board to join her for donor meetings. They had the usual excuses, so she conducted most of these meetings without board participation.

Finally, in frustration, she shared her struggle with a foundation officer—and the two of them devised a brilliant solution. She returned to the board with a proposition.

"I just received a $10,000 challenge grant on the condition that board members join me on 20 donor visits. Every time you come with me, we receive an additional $500 from the foundation just because you're in the room.

"You don't have to ask for the gift. I'll do that. Your job is to talk about our work and why it's meaningful to you.

"Get out your calendars and tell me when you're available. I will start scheduling appointments right now."

This is an example of what psychologists call aversion therapy. People are scared of something—snakes, spiders, donors, whatever—until they're exposed to it, and then they discover that their fears are irrational. Yes, some snakes and spiders are dangerous. Donors are not. Sit down with a donor or two and you'll look forward to doing it again.

As with the previous example, this challenge grant provided an incentive for board members to change their behavior. They met the challenge and collected the grant. Everyone felt proud. After that, it was much easier to recruit board members to meet with donors.

Get Creative—Challenge Your Board!

This principle can be applied to almost any aspect of board behavior. If you're focusing on fundraising, here are a few additional metrics that could be linked to challenge gifts.

  • 100% board giving. The donor provides a gift on the condition that all board members also make a gift.
  • Prospecting: The challenge is complete when all trustees provide names of at least five potential donors.
  • Thank-you calls. When the board phones 100 donors to thank them—for example, 10 trustees each calling 10 donors—the challenge gift is received.
  • Board fundraising agreements. When you have a personalized agreement or work plan from all board members specifying how they want to participate in fundraising, you can collect the money.

Encourage the board to develop its own measurements of fundraising success. Then identify donors who will make a challenge gift to motivate the board to follow through.

Here's the best part. When you use a donor's gift to change and strengthen your organization, you engage that donor in a much deeper, more intentional way. When you meet the challenge requirements, you're delivering on your promises, reinforcing the board's efforts, and deepening your connection to the challenge donor. Everybody wins.

Challenge-Your-Board-Raise-More-Money_Andy_Robinson.jpgThe preceding is a guest post by Andy Robinson, trainer and consultant based in Vermont. Learn more at and A brand-new video series, focused on effective board training, is available at

Topics: Board Development