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

Top Fundraising Challenges Board Members Must Overcome

It’s not quite like sneezing with your eyes open—which I understand is impossible—but still it’s difficult to single out the top challenges board members need to grapple with when it comes to raising money.

But that’s my charge, so here are 4 key ones for your consideration. You’ll find all 44 explained in my book Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face.

1. You Yourself Have to Give

Every field has its first principles. You might call them axioms to live by. For Apple Computer, Steve Jobs’s mantra was “No compromises.” For serious journalists, the first obligation is to the truth. And physicians since the fifth century have been guided by the purported words of Hippocrates: “First do no harm.” Fundraising, too, has a first principle. It is that boards have an obligation to give.

Some organizations actually prescribe a giving level for board members. One prominent college recommends a gift equal to its yearly tuition. An established arts center suggests $50,000 per year. More affordable is the request from a mid-Atlantic advocacy group: $2,500.

That’s one bold approach. The more common one is for organizations simply to encourage each board member to make a generous gift. Some go so far as to spell out what generous means in the job description: “While serving on the board, I commit to making our organization one of the top three charities I support each year.”

Regardless of your organization’s approach, your gift is critical.

2. Don’t Ask Everyone for the Same Amount

You’re heard it before. “All it takes to raise $100,000 is to ask 100 people to give $1,000. Presto.”


Here’s why. First, this one-size-fits-all “strategy” ignores reality. Not all of those 100 people will give. In fact, you’ll need to approach 3 or 4 prospects to secure one gift. Second, not everyone will contribute $1,000, which means to achieve an averagegift of $1,000, you’ll need gifts of far greater amounts. Third, asking for $1,000 in effect limits those who could or would give $5,000 or more.

If these aren’t reasons enough, here’s another: This approach is grossly unfair. Located at 420 Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, is Bijan, reputedly the world’s most expensive store. You need an appointment to shop for its $15,000 suits (matching socks: $100). Would it really be fair to ask Leonardo DiCaprio, a Bijan patron, for the same $1,000 as the key grip in his movie, The Wolf of Wall Street?

Keep in mind what Irving Warner, a veteran fundraiser, said years ago, “The man who suggests you need 1,000 contributions of $10 each for your $10,000 project: A) Knows arithmetic, B) Thinks he’s given you a brilliant solution, and C) Won’t give more than $10.”

3. Make Your Case

If I asked you, What is your purpose in life? that would be tough to answer. It’s a question that’s dogged everyone from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Oprah Winfrey.

If, however, a potential donor asks you, What is your organization’s purpose? you need an answer—a ready one. Why are you seeking funds? Why now? Why should I give to your organization and not another? Who will benefit? How will you know? The answers to these questions should roll off your tongue.

And they will, if before setting out to raise money you think through the rationale for your campaign and lay out your conclusions in a “case statement.” In essence, this is your organization’s reason for being.

It tells donors and prospects who you are, what you’re trying to accomplish, and why. It describes your history and purpose and plans. But, most important, it offers compelling reasons to invest in your particular cause, right now, and tells who will benefit.

Your case statement needn’t be long or elaborate. More important is that it’s tasteful, well written, free of hyperbole, and, here’s the clincher, written from the perspective of your potential donors.

On this last key point listen to what case expert Tom Ahern, author of Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes, has to say: “Prospects want to be moved. I mean hearts-beating-faster moved, hairs-standing-on-end moved. You’re not fundraisers as much as ‘hope-raisers.’ You’re selling to donors the credible hope that they can change the world for the better ... through you … if they invest in your merry band of troublemakers, change agents, healers, saints, or such.”

4. The Real Secret to Success

If you’ve been to New Orleans’s French Quarter, there’s a good chance a hustler came up to you, pointed to your feet, and said, “Five dollars says I know where you got those shoes.” Figuring only the clerk at Sock ’n Soul knows for sure, you accept the bet. “On your feet!” says the con artist, holding his hand out to collect.

Here’s a similar trick question. The last time you gave to a cause, $20 says I know what motivated you. Because somebody asked you!

Donors give for an assortment of reasons. According to a study by the Colorado Nonprofit Association, the top three are: they believe the organization is trustworthy (98 percent), they believe the organization is well managed and effective (96 percent), and they feel the organization supports a cause they believe in (96 percent).

But even so, what sparks a gift in the first place is the fact that there you are, in the flesh, asking for it. The problem is that many of us are willing to do anything but ask.

Maybe we don’t fully believe in the cause. Or we’re afraid we’ll be turned down. Or we question our persuasive powers. Or we worry we’ll be asked for a gift in return.

The truth is, there will always be a knot in your stomach, which, funny enough, is all the more reason to feel proud. “Courage is being scared to death ... and saddling up anyway.” Maybe he wasn’t a great actor, but John Wayne got it right with those words.

David Lansdowne
© 2015, Emerson & Church, Publishers. Adapted from Fundraising Realities Every Board Member Must Face.

David Lansdowne has spent his professional life in the nonprofit sector, serving in a wide variety of development and administrative positions for educational, cultural, and health organizations throughout the United States.

Topics: Nonprofit boards and fundraising Nonprofit Board Giving