Ask not-for-profit board members if they enjoy fundraising and their responses will vary widely. Some members are happy to participate if given the green light by their organizations. In my experience, however, many board members find soliciting donations uncomfortable or even distasteful. Some feel they don't have the necessary personal connections or wealth. Or they say, "It's just not my job."
Today, however, fundraising is everyone's job if a not-for-profit is to be successful and sustainable. While charitable giving is growing in volume—now exceeding $410 billion in the United States—competition for those dollars remains fierce. The number of nonprofits vying for personal donations, corporate gifts, government grants, and other means of support is expanding. Meanwhile, the household giving that many small to mid-size nonprofits depend on has actually declined as a percentage of overall charitable activity.
Donors are different today as well. They are not "your grandfather's donor" who writes a check and expects little in return. Today's best charitable givers want to be heard, to be involved in strategic direction and kept informed about how their dollars are put to use. They want to maintain contact and connection with people in the organization, including the board.
Because of these changes, fundraising requires a much more sophisticated, multi-faceted approach. It must be core to an organization's identity and must be a shared responsibility—one in which board members play a critical role.
The Right Mindset
Fundraising starts at the top of the organization. The CEO or executive director, the board chair, and other leaders must prioritize and develop a systematic approach to soliciting donations and launching campaigns, then outline these initiatives as part of a comprehensive strategic plan. Without such a document, and clear messaging around goals and strategy, fundraising will not succeed.
Each organization must also have a culture that embraces fundraising. Is everyone rooted in the mission and rowing in the same direction? When new leaders and staff are recruited, do they have a passion for their work? Is the mission central to all meetings, materials, and decision making?
Fundraising success is also a matter of mindset. The CEO and leadership must frame it as something that is purposeful and rewarding rather than distasteful. In my view, raising money for something which you are passionate about is an honor and a privilege. It is something that you love to do, and successful not-for-profits embrace this philosophy.
Getting Board Buy-in
With the right organizational culture and strategy in place, the board, too, can play a meaningful role in fundraising—in soliciting donations but also in giving. Members themselves should expect to donate. They already invest time and energy for the cause, but contributing financially—even modestly—underscores their commitment. In fact, many grant-making agencies will require 100 percent board participation in donating.
It can be difficult for the CEO or chair to ask established board members to donate if they haven't previously. Therefore, the governance committee (or executive committee in smaller organizations) must create and ratify a Board Expectation document that includes the stipulation that members make financial contributions. The document can be revisited and revised year after year. It can also be something that board members are measured by, in terms of how they have participated, attended meetings, and supported the organization. When new members are recruited, they will know that giving is expected along with other duties and responsibilities.
As for soliciting funds, every board member should play a part. Some members will need support such as mentoring from the CEO or head of development. A board self-assessment can be a useful tool to gauge which members are suited to raise funds. Completed by the board itself or an outside party, the assessment inventories skills and abilities (for example, in the areas of strategy, marketing, IT, social media, etc.) and matches them to organizational priorities. The assessment process can also identify gaps that need to be addressed as new members are recruited.
In addition, each board should establish a development committee if one does not exist, and staff it properly and ensure that it has ample time on the agenda of each meeting. Not only does this give committee members a clear, designated role in fundraising strategy but it puts philanthropy front and center every time the board congregates.
Leveraging Meeting Time
On that note, board meetings are critical opportunities to build fundraising momentum. There are several ways to do this:
- Begin each meeting with a mission-based moment or story. This moment can be a personal experience or anecdote from a board or staff member that highlights the core purpose of the organization and reinforces the need for strong fundraising. It reminds members why they're there in the first place. It answers the question, "Why does this organization exist?"
- Place development in the middle rather than at the end of the agenda, to make sure it gets needed attention. If fundraising gets short shrift on the agenda, it becomes a "nice to have" rather than a top priority.
- Have the development director or board chair give the fundraising report or update, to give it more authority and gravity.
- Get creative with the agenda. Meetings can include visioning exercises (e.g., "Where do we see ourselves in five years?"), motivational videos, or even board members from other organizations who can share stories of fundraising challenges and successes.
Whether in meetings or on the phone with donors, board members should see fundraising as their duty and privilege. With a culture of philanthropy on the board, the entire organization benefits.
Julie A. Rosen is leader of the Not-for-Profit Practice as well as a consultant within the Healthcare Practice of the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. Based in the firm’s Boston office, Julie identifies C-suite and other senior leaders on behalf of hospitals, health systems, philanthropic and charitable foundations, social service organizations, national and international member associations, and other leading not-for-profits. Most recently, Julie served as executive director of the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare in Boston, a national not-for-profit organization advocating for enhancing the patient-clinician relationship.