The GuideStar Blog retired September 9, 2019. We invite you to visit its replacement, the Candid Blog. You’re also welcome to browse or search the GuideStar Blog archives. Onward!

GuideStar Blog

How I Broke Through My #1 Problem with My Board

I wish you could have been there.

It was a lovely fall day on the coast of North Carolina. I was meeting with the board of a local museum working on their fundraising strategies. There, in the back conference room of a local bank, we all sat around the table. Things were pretty solemn.

The volunteers were well-meaning community leaders, wonderful people. They wanted to help raise money but they were inexperienced and very, very anxious. Even though this was a cause they cared deeply about.

I knew how passionate they were.

And I was searching, searching to find a way to shift them to a new place of energy, passion, and action. I knew they were really nervous about fundraising.

But I had been through this before. In my history both as a staff fundraiser and consultant, this was a pretty familiar place. I had had way too many experiences with anxious fundraising volunteers who had to be coaxed every step of the way, even just to talk to their friends about their favorite cause.

And I knew that many of these trustees were close to many people with major financial resources. I knew they had the ability to open many doors to potential donors.

Does this sound like your own board?

So there I sat—or stood—since I was leading the conversation—desperately trying to figure out a way to guide them past their nervousness, so they would actually take action and reach out to their connections.

All talk and no action?

Could it be that these wonderful people were "all talk and no action?" I found that the closer we got to the act of "asking," the more my enthusiastic volunteers would melt. They would turn cold and lose their passion. Resolve would run out the door when the board members thought about picking up the phone.

But the real problem was that I also found my own fundraising success tied directly to these nervous volunteers. How could I commit to fundraising results when our fragile volunteer fundraising team was losing steam and backing off?

I figured there HAD TO BE a better way!

I started to wonder if I had been approaching fundraising from the wrong place.

Somehow I had been letting my board members think it was all about the "ask" and not about long-term relationships with friends/donors/investors.

I realized that it's not really about the ASK.

So I tried breaking down their barriers by taking the emphasis away from soliciting and focusing instead on cultivation and making friends for the cause.

When I really looked at the fundraising program, I found were many places in the fundraising cycle where I could use the more reluctant board members who didn't want to solicit.

Once I told them they didn't have to "ask" unless they were comfortable, I saw board members shift into more active roles in the fundraising process. Incredibly, their attitudes started to shift from anxiety to almost glee when discussing possible supporters.

We changed things so that every board member got to choose the role he or she wanted to play in fundraising. And when they realized that they didn't HAVE to solicit, they came around. They realized that there were many roles they could play in the fundraising program that didn't involve soliciting.

We worked together to look at all the ways they could participate in fundraising—ways that could directly affect the bottom line. They could host tours, parties, help identify prospects, involve donors in the cause, and thank donors.

This was a new approach. I looked at my board committees from a new place of possibility. I was looking for ways to activate the power, passion, and creativity of the board members—not deaden them!

And I managed to reinvent the traditional "Fundraising 101 for Board Members" into something more like "Friendraising for Board Members."

It just took a different vocabulary.

I talked about potential, vision, possibilities, alignment, setting "stretch goals," and "going for it." I smiled more with my volunteers. I saw people smile back, instead of frowning when we talked about fundraising. Things were not quite so very tense!

I kept refining my fundraising training seminar for board members. I worked to create an experience that was more like a two-way conversation. Something that could transform their point of view about the organization, about their roles, and about what they could do to support fundraising.

Here's your takeaway: Take the emphasis away from soliciting and put your board members to work making friends for the cause. You'll see a profound difference.

Board members can get really excited about the cause if you'll just take away the fear of "asking." When they think that fundraising is all about "money," it really is not fun and can be awful.

But when you change the definition of fundraising to "making friends for the cause," then ALL board members want to be all over it.

And your board members will be open, eager, and happy.

And when board members are open and happy, they will surprise you with new ideas, new energy, new connections. Hurray!

Gail Perry, MBA, CFRE
© 2010, Gail Perry

Gail Perry is the author of Fired Up Fundraising: Turn Board Passion into Action and founder of Gail Perry Associates, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based consulting and training firm.

Topics: Board Development