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Who Is Your Board Fundraising Spark Plug?

Who Is Your Board Fundraising Spark Plug?Imagine the following scene.

The lonely staff fundraiser—let’s call this person Executive Director or Development Director—sits alone in a very small room, thinking about a very large fundraising goal.

“Hello, board!” the fundraiser cries out. “Are you there?”

A long pause. Nobody answers.

“We need to raise a lot of money. Help!”

Still no response.

“Why won’t you return my emails?”

Silence. Finally, the fundraiser says the unsayable.

“You’re not doing your job very well, are you?”

Lacking leadership, nothing happens

Hundreds of consultants, including me, have written millions of words about boards and fundraising.

As a trainer, the demand for this topic is endless. I lead a LOT of board fundraising workshops.

The writing is useful and sometimes provocative. The workshops generate lots of practical, actionable ideas.

But in the end, it’s all about the board taking responsibility for its own work.

If your accountability model requires the staff to nag the board, someone is going to end up frustrated, sitting in a lonely room, yelling at the ceiling.

Bring in the spark plug!

Given this challenge, I’d like to propose a new position: Board Fundraising Spark Plug.

If the phrase Spark Plug doesn’t work for you, consider Coach. How about Cheerleader? (I’m originally from New Jersey, so I like the word Enforcer.)

The title isn’t important, but the function is essential: peer support and accountability.

This person says to the other trustees, “Yes, we’re a fundraising board. We will train ourselves to be more effective. We will support each other. We will do everything we can to ensure our success. And yes, we will hold each other accountable.”

If your board includes one fundraising spark plug, that’s terrific. Two or three would be even better.

Where do you find your spark plugs?

At this point you may be thinking, “We have a development committee. That’s their job, right?”

In the ideal world, absolutely. But would they agree? Do they see their role as training, coaching, and accountability? Or would they prefer to focus on other things, such as organizing your annual benefit event?

Effective spark plug behavior is less about formal positions and committees, and more about the willingness step up and lead. It’s both a job description and a perhaps a personality type.

To recruit your spark plugs, consider two options.

  • Groom existing board members to fill the role (yes, this could be your re-imagined development or fundraising committee).
  • Recruit new trustees with the capacity and willingness to provide fundraising leadership.

Coaching and training, not just nagging

To be clear, the work of the spark plug is two-thirds coaching and training, and only one-third holding people accountable for their commitments.

For example, here’s a typical conversation initiated by the spark plug.

“Martina, I was looking at the fundraising calendar and I noticed that you’ll be hosting a house party in two months. How’s it going? Have you started planning yet? What help do you need from the rest of the board to make this event a success?”

Notice the flavor of this conversation. Rather than disciplinary—“Are you doing the work you committed to do?”—the tone is supportive—“How can we help you reach your goal? What do you need to be successful?”

Firing on all cylinders

All the board interventions imaginable—written agreements, fundraising workshops, board fundraising menus, etc.—will have limited impact without peer leadership and accountability.

On the other hand, when implemented with effective spark plug leadership, these tools work great and anything is possible.

If you want to turn your board (and your organization) into a smooth-running fundraising machine, focus on board leadership. Fire up those spark plugs!

Who Is Your Board Fundraising Spark Plug?The preceding is a cross-post by Andy Robinson from the Train Your Board blog. For 34 years, Andy has worked with a variety of nonprofits as a fundraiser, facilitator, trainer, and community organizer. As fundraising consultant, he's provided support and training to thousands of nonprofit staff and volunteer leaders in 47 U.S. states and across Canada. Andy specializes in the needs of organizations working for human rights, social justice, artistic expression, environmental conservation, and community development. To learn more, visit

Topics: Fundraising Nonprofit boards and fundraising