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Q&A on Engaging the Board in the Development and Sponsorship Process

On April 13, 2011, Kevin Strickland, president of the Not for Profit Group, presented a GuideStar webinar on getting nonprofit boards involved in the development process. The following are questions on this topic that he and his colleagues hear frequently from members of the nonprofit community.

How do I deal with a person on my board who also serves on three other local nonprofits' development committees? I tend to be afraid to give him the names of our key supporters.

I would suggest having an honest and direct conversation with the board member expressing your concerns. In many cases, board members do serve on other boards, creating this potential hazard. In my experience, most board members will not "heist" your support base. Most are well-intentioned, honest people who have honorable intentions for helping your organization. If, however, your concern is based on the fact that this board member has revealed sensitive information in the past, I would suggest considering if this is the right person to serve on your board.

How do you handle board members that simply don't want to help with the development process?

Before you write them off, please consider the following: Do they know how to refer potential supporters to you? You may think this is a dumb question, but you'd be surprised how many board members simply lack the skill for development. If you're not sure, I would suggest creating an overview of the needs of the organization and suggesting ways the board can give support by providing leads, scheduling meetings with potential supporters, etc.

My second thought pertains to the members' level of passion and interest. If someone is not sincerely interested in your organization's mission, no amount of prodding on your part is going to motivate him or her.

It is also important to consider what purpose and role each board member serves. Some that are very involved in development are sickened by the thought of building a budget for the organization. Conversely those that aren't inclined toward development can serve in other capacities. You job is to recognizes each board member's strengths and weaknesses and utilize his or her resources in the appropriate and most effective manner.

What if I've done all this and I still can't get my board to focus on anything besides brainstorming new "ideas" and constantly giving ME new tasks to turn those ideas into reality? I'm only one person.

One of the best stories I've ever read in organizations management was about about a supervisor who was sick of his employees constantly coming up with ideas and plans but rarely executing those ideas on their own. To solve his problem, every time an employee brought a complaint or new idea to him, the supervisor would ask the employee to write a two-page outline, explaining how the problem could be fixed and what his role would be in fixing that problem. Guess what happened? Everyone started being part of the solution instead of just talking about the problem.

Before you throw you hands in the air and pull your hair out, consider the following. Most board members are well intentioned, believe in your cause, and will do what's asked of them if they consider your request reasonable considering their other professional duties. The next time someone offers an idea, put the burden back on them. For example, you could say, "Tom, that's a great idea you have, thanks for your initiative in bringing that up. In order to have the best possible chance for success, let's take a few minutes to discuss what support structures I'll need to implement this idea. Tom, could you give us your thoughts on how we should proceed and your level of commitment to work with me to see this through?"

Tom gives his thoughts, and you respond, "Thanks Tom, I appreciate your willingness to help. It seems we've had a lot of good ideas today, but I think we all agree that Tom's is the best bet for success of those discussed today. Why don't we all work together to ensure Tom's idea has the best possible chance for success? I'll give you each a call to discuss your roles in turning this idea into a reality. Thanks again for your support, Tom." Let me know how that works for you!

My board tends to focus on fundraising "products," e.g., types of funds to contribute to, rather than the donor's desires. How do I change this?

Organizations need to move from "event management" to connecting with donors and sponsors on a deep and personal level. It's not about what you want to sell; it's about what they want to buy. I think most boards understand this in their own professional lives but tend to leave that wisdom at the door when they step into a board meeting.

I'd suggest asking them how they create relationships at their businesses. My guess is that they will say their goal is to understand what the needs of their customers are, then fulfill those needs with the appropriate products and services aimed at creating long-term loyalty with their customer base. Help your board members understand that running a nonprofit is just like running a business. Engage them in helping you connect with donors, the same way they connect with their customers.

How do you get started with development if you are a new organization?

With input from your board, begin by building a profile of the types of individual and corporate donors and sponsors who would be interested in your organization's mission. Next, consider the common characteristics of those who would tend to be interested, then develop and distribute your findings to each board member in writing. Ask each board member to identify all the individuals and businesses in his or her sphere of influence that match this "target" profile.

Once you have this information in hand, you're ready to move to the next step, which is to determine the best method for contacting the persons on the list. (Feel free to e-mail me at, and I'll send you a sample "board member introduction script.")

Solicit the board's input and suggest possible next steps, such as scheduling a meeting for you and each board member to meet with the potential donors he or she has suggested. At the very least, ask the board member to make a phone call on your behalf. Make sure you keep each board member apprised of your progress. Communication is the key for building internal relationships.

If you let some board members off the hook for development, why would anyone do it?

Unfortunately, it's a fact of life that not everyone is going to be engaged in or well suited for development. This fact does not mean, however, that each EVERY board member should have an undefined role as a resource to the organization.

I once sat on a board where we had a prominent CPA as the treasurer. Although he was very uncomfortable asking his clients to support the organization, he graciously performed the organization's audits and took on the responsibility of overseeing the organization's finances. Everyone on the board knew his role; he was an asset, saving the board valuable resources that would have otherwise been spent on the services of an accountant. Focus on people's strengths, not weaknesses, and align the needs of the organization with their unique abilities.

How to get over fear of rejection when asking for support?

The two top reasons those in development fail to secure a closed donation are a) fear of rejection and b) lack of skill. I'll address the first. No one likes the thought of being told "No" when asking for support. It's the key factor in task avoidance. Have you experienced the situation where you sit at your desk to get ready to call a potential supporter and are overcome with fear, increased heart rate, and beads of sweat on your neck? (FYI, if you have, you're not alone.)

You then put your hand on the phone, psyche yourself up, breathe in, breathe out, and come to the realization that before you "dial for dollars," you need coffee in your system to make an effective call? Then, after the rush of caffeine, when you get back to your desk, do you find important e-mails to respond to, a host of never-ending fires that need to be attended to?

Sometimes, it seems we'd rather clean out our file folders than call someone up for support. The reason: Fear of rejection. We always do things we know, we like, and we want to do, and we avoid things we don't like, are uncomfortable with, or don't like to do.

Here are some things that will help you.

First and foremost, prepare for common objections you are guaranteed to hear. Here are some you're sure to get:

  • "We've been supporting XYZ organization for 15 years."
  • "We're not able to give sponsorships; our budget has been cut"
  • "I'm too busy now."
  • "Send me information in the mail."
  • "I gave at the office."
  • "Tell me over the phone; that'll save us both time."

If you know what you'll hear, you can start to anticipate what to say when you hear it. Preparation is the key. Below are some effective responses:

"Tell me over the phone; that'll save us both time."
"Mr. Smith, we offer a variety of program services to the community. We try to match our organization's opportunities to the goals and objectives of our supporters. If we could meet and I could learn more about you and your company, perhaps I might be able to offer some opportunities that would be a better match for you now or in the future. Would it be possible to meet face to face in the next couple of weeks?"

"This is a bad time; I'm busy."
"I understand. Is there a time that would work better for you? (Wait for a response.) Sometimes this may be a "smoke screen" to cover up the "real" objection.

  • If the answer is "Yes"
    "When would work best for you? (Wait for a response.) Great, I'll give you a call a week or so in advance to set up a meeting. I look forward to speaking with you then."
  • If the answer is "No"
    "I can understand; time is a precious commodity for us all. With your permission, I'd like to check back with you from time to time and perhaps we can meet together down the road. May I give you a call in, say, three months?"

"I already support another organization."
"For you to support the nonprofit community tells me a lot about you and your generosity to our community. If possible, I'd still like the opportunity to meet to learn more about you—then if an opportunity arises where you might want to make a gift in the future, you'll have our organization as an additional option to consider. Would it be possible to get together in the next couple of weeks?"

"I already give at work (I gave at the office)."
"First of all, thank you for supporting our community; organizations like ours benefit tremendously from the generous support of individuals like you. Respecting and appreciating the fact that you are already giving, I'd still like the opportunity to meet you, find out more about your philanthropic goals and objectives. With that knowledge, there may be some additional ways we could partner."

Additionally, many times when we ask people we do not know anything about for support over the phone, we are inviting pushback. The best use of the telephone is for gaining a face-to-face appointment, not for asking someone to give.

How do we search for new board members and create high expectations when the current board members are rather inactive as it pertains to development?

I'll address each of your concerns separately.

  • How do we seek new board members? Anyone who believes in your organization or participates in your organization's mission is a potential source of names. They could be current key supporters, current and potential referral sources, or even people whose lives have been touched by your services. It's time to think non-traditionally. Just because someone is a "banker" doesn't mean he or she is a fit.
  • How do we create high expectations for new board members? Schedule a time separate from the official board meeting to educate the board members about their role within the development effort. Explain to the group your process for proactive development and, to achieve their buy-in, request their input and support. Remember, you cannot set expectations for someone unless you have a clear, defined, written development process. Once that's in place, you can then clearly define their role as it pertains to development. For an effective process for development, visit our virtual training at Before you bring on new board members, ask them to view the training as well to ensure everyone is on the same page.

How do we motivate and inspire our current board members to participate actively in development?

First and foremost, remember not to confuse the terms inspiration and motivation. Inspiration literally means to breathe into. Motivation means to move. Inspiring a board to participate in development is short lived (have you ever bought an exercise program the day after Thanksgiving only to give up after three days?)

Motivation, on the other hand, means giving someone the possibility to move from where they are today to where you need them to be tomorrow. For motivation to occur, it may be necessary to take some time to outline the role you need board members to take pertaining to development. Give them clear direction, immediate feedback, and recognition of performance, and you will create the support structures necessary for motivation to occur.

What if your board members have limited spheres of influence?

Many times, people in the community know more people than they realize (or care to share with you). My first reaction would be to ask you if you think this may be a "smoke screen" they use to avoid development like the plague. Here's a way to help you understand if that's the case.

Explain to the board that to "jump-start the development process," you are requesting they assist in helping identify those in the community who might be interested in assisting the organization. Using a flip chart, ask the board to help you identify the key characteristics of those that have the propensity for supporting the organization. (For a sample target profile, e-mail us, and we'll be glad to send it to you). Next, ask each board member to identify as many people as they can (at least 10 each) who match the characteristics you identified. Ask each board member to write down persons they know who match this profile. You may be surprised at the number of names they come up with.

If they truly have limited spheres of influence, it's time to asses each board member's role. If you feel your board's number one responsibility should be development and that the true problem is the lack the will, skill (skill is the least of my worries; you can teach people how to refer), or ability to assist in development, you may need to have a retirement party.

For more information, I encourage you to visit our new virtual development training site at There you can learn powerful process for the retention and acquisition of donors and sponsors. You can also follow us on Twitter at @notforprofitgrp; for Linked-in and Facebook, search Not for Profit Group.

Kevin Strickland, Not for Profit Group
© 2011, Not for Profit Group

engaging-board-development-and-sponsorship_Kevin-Strickland.jpgKevin Strickland is the co-founder and president of the Not for Profit Group, a consultancy specializing in building proven donor retention and acquisition strategies for not for profit organizations. Kevin has an extensive consulting background working with corporations and organizations across the United States. The former president of Commercial Banking for RBC Bank in Florida, he was responsible for directing and building processes for client loyalty and acquisition strategies.

Topics: Board Development