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The Unspoken Truth about Boards and Fundraising

The Unspoken Truth about Boards and FundraisingDoes everyone on your board raise money?

If the answer is “No!”—perhaps the question makes you laugh or groan or grind your teeth—you’re not alone.

How do I know? By far, the most popular service I offer is board fundraising training. Because so many boards struggle to raise money, demand is endless. (Note to consultants: if you want to build your business, improve your skills as a fundraising trainer.)

Everybody grabs an oar

Every board training I facilitate is designed around two principles:

  • Fundraising is primarily about building relationships, rather than asking for money.
  • Those who don’t want to ask—in other words, most board members—can participate many other productive ways.

The Unspoken Truth about Boards and FundraisingThis model, sometimes called the Cycle of Fundraising, includes tasks like writing thank you notes, inviting friends to cultivation events, hosting parties, making introductions, recruiting new board members with fundraising expertise, serving as community ambassadors, calling donors to say thank you, and so on.

The idea is simple. Define fundraising broadly, then create a menu of ways that trustees can participate. If you offer low-risk opportunities to engage—and people get to choose how they engage—then everyone can grab an oar, climb into the boat, and start rowing together.

At its core, this is an egalitarian model. All board members can (and should) engage in fundraising in some way.

Why this strategy fails

I’ve seen this approach work well, which is why I continue to teach and promote it.

However, without lots of ongoing coaching and clear accountability, board members tend to backslide and revert to their baseline behavior: avoiding fundraising.

Let’s be compassionate. Remember, they’re volunteers. Most have jobs, family commitments, chores, hobbies, health concerns, etc. Even the least-intimidating version of fundraising requires time, effort, and focus, which is hard to claim—even with the most well-intentioned, well-organized volunteers.

In short, life gets in the way. Some barriers to fundraising are simply beyond your control.

Slicing your board into thirds

Given the inherent time challenges and baseline resistance, consider the following as your best-case scenario. Make a mental list of your trustees, then divide your board into three tiers.

  • Top tier: Committed to fundraising, fearless, will take initiative. In the best cases, willing to train and engage other board members and volunteers.
  • Middle tier: Sees fundraising as a necessary but uncomfortable chore, generally follows through, not natural leaders in this arena.
  • Lower tier: Resists fundraising, even the easy tasks. Afflicted by inertia. In the worst situations, tries to obstruct staff and other board members.

On most boards, about one-third of the trustees land in each tier, and that’s as good as it gets. More and more, I view the traditional goal—every board member a committed, self-motivated, successful fundraiser—as unrealistic.

Because I believe in equity, this line of thinking makes me pretty uncomfortable. Why should some people work while others watch (or worse, complain)?

However, if you focus on the most engaged trustees—rather than the most resistant—you can use this model to change the culture of your board.

Invest your energy where it makes sense

A classic mistake you might make: spending all your effort on the lowest tier. Why won’t those inert, obstructionist board members to do something—anything!—to help with fundraising? Argh!

Let me suggest an alternative. Invest your emotional energy on the other two tiers. Help the pretty good ones in the middle become really effective. Develop the great ones at the top into active leaders who can shift board culture.

Here’s the good news: If you can lift four or five board members into that top tier—taking leadership, coaching other board members, creating peer accountability systems, serving as cheerleaders and spark plugs—that’s critical mass. Once you hit this tipping point, you’ll see a big change in your board’s behavior.

Not everyone will make the journey

What I’m about to suggest might be board fundraising blasphemy, but here goes.

It’s OK to write off some board members. Give up on them!

If people aren’t willing to make the journey, leave them behind. Whatever happens, don’t allow them to prevent others from moving forward.

As you build your leadership tier, the culture on the board will change. The resistant ones will sense that change, and will either step up or leave.

This may take awhile. Keep focusing your energy on those want to learn, participate, lead, and improve their fundraising skills.

This post is reprinted from the Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money Blog.

The Unspoken Truth about Boards and FundraisingAndy Robinson is author of How to Raise $500 to $5000 from Almost Anyone; What Every Board Member Needs to Know, Do, and Avoid Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money (co-authored with Andrea Kihlstedt); and The Board Member’s Easier Than You Think Guide to Nonprofit Finances (co-authored with Nancy Wasserman).

Topics: Nonprofit Board Nonprofit boards and fundraising