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The Board's Role in Donor Cultivation


Here's a dilemma. Your organization has a new board member—let's call her Maisie.

She is personally wealthy and knows a lot of people who could be prospects for major gifts (indeed, that's why you asked her to join the board and were thrilled when she accepted). You hope she'll provide entree to a whole new donor pool.

Maisie comes to her first development committee meeting. She's already promised to do her share. You present her with logical prospects to solicit and anticipate great results. But in every instance Maisie's response is the same. "Well of course I know them. But I couldn't possibly ask them for money." Then the next sentence is either "They're some of my closest friends" or "They're relatives."

What to do? For the moment, let's discuss what you shouldn't do:

  • First, don't insist. It's amazing how many of us do, often with poor results. We don't want to accept a no from someone like Maisie because we're certain she'll succeed. But if Maisie isn't comfortable asking, of if she does agree reluctantly, then it's likely she'll be a terrible solicitor. If you push too hard, the whole thing could end unpleasantly—you might even find yourself minus a board member.
  • Second, be willing to put off soliciting some of the people you felt were perfect prospects for Maisie—at least for a while. Once she has her feet on the ground and has success asking others, she may change her mind. I've seen this happen countless times.
  • Third, don't let Maisie off the hook. She may not be the best solicitor, at least not yet, but there are other ways she can help.

As I explain in my book, How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise, I learned early on how the process works when people feel they can't approach family and friends. My parents, who were generous and willing to help raise money, were continually asked to serve on boards. No surprise there. But there was one group my mother and father never approached—relatives. There was an unwritten family rule—"We don't solicit one another." As you would guess, that frustrated a lot of organizations that had anticipated easy pickings when my parents joined their boards.

It frustrated my mother, too, as she did want to help financially. Fortunately, under the tutelage of a fundraising master, she learned just how to do that.

Roland was executive director of an organization where my mother served as a board member. She loved what the group did and wanted to improve their bottom line. "I wish there was something I could do," she told Roland."But I'd be booted out of the family."

"Oh, but you can help," Roland said. And over the next month, he and my mother and the development staff developed a list of key family members with my mother telling them everything she knew about each one—age, occupation, interests, children with ages and where they went to school, things their children had done of which they were particularly proud. It was an information dump so large my mother wondered how it could possibly be useful.

But useful it was. As Roland and his staff and other board members met the relatives, they were primed. As such, they could link aspects of their organization's activities to areas of interest for each family member. Sometimes it led nowhere ... but occasionally a connection was made. And as one family member after another came into the fold, the dominoes started to fall and many became donors.

Board members have a special status in the game of donor cultivation. Their word offers more credibility than a staff member's. So talking up an organization, telling a prospect why doing board service is so satisfying, can be a critical first step in introducing that individual to an organization. In fact, when I conduct board trainings, I tell each member that every gathering they attend is a cultivation event, and if they don't have at least one conversation with a potential donor, then these board members aren't doing their job.

There is one last area of donor cultivation uniquely suited to a board member—that of cultivating fellow trustees. If you've been in the field for long, you're aware that no group of individuals has more responsibility for giving than the board. Yet often their giving potential is under-realized.

That's why each trustee should be thought of as a prospect and each should receive the kind of attention reserved for the most important donors. I always assume that a trustee will give more if properly cultivated. This is not a job for staff—only fellow trustees can do it. And when they do it well, everyone feels good.

The-Boards-Role-in-Donor-Cultivation_Thomas-Wolf.jpgThe preceding is a guest post by Thomas Wolf, a principal with the consulting firm WolfBrown. He is the author of How to Connect with Donors and Double the Money You Raise. Among his other books is Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together.

Topics: Board Development