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The Fundraising Challenge: Bringing the Board on Board, Part 1

This article is a part of a July PA TIMES Online series titled “Nonprofit Management: Getting Volunteers and Donations in a Down Economy.” We are still accepting articles for this series and encourage potential authors to contact Editor Christine Jewett McCrehin at cjewett@aspanet.org.

Gary Kelsey

An exercise I often conduct with the boards of nonprofit organizations reveals why so many of these organizations face fundraising challenges. I ask board members to write down the first words that come to mind when they think of fundraising. Of the responses that can be repeated in polite company, those I hear most often are: “Hate it.” “Oh, no!” “Quid pro quo.” “Again?” and “Rejection.” The most frequent answer of all is “Begging.”

 Engaging nonprofit organization board members in their fundraising role calls for education, training and support

Only once in my entire career has anyone responded, “I love it.” Typically, the exercise produces 20 very negative words, three or four that are neutral and—if I’m lucky—one or two positive thoughts such as, “Enjoy it.” or “Mission-based.”

If that’s how board members feel about fundraising, it’s no wonder they’re reluctant to participate. Yet ensuring that an organization has the necessary resources to operate and fulfill its mission is a legitimate part of their role. All board members are legally, morally and fiscally responsible for the organizations they serve.

In today’s uncertain economy, board members’ involvement in fundraising is even more pressing. When incomes suffer, donors may become hesitant or unable to make their usual gifts. Large donors may give less because the returns on their investments have declined. Cutbacks in foundation and government grants mean less available money at the same time as more nonprofit organizations compete for donor dollars.

A nonprofit organization’s executive director and development director can’t overcome these challenges alone. Board members should be given the opportunity to make a gift in an amount that’s meaningful to them, and they should also be involved in fundraising in a way that’s meaningful to them—and in a way in which they feel educated, trained and supported.

Nonprofit organizations need to move their board members beyond thinking about fundraising as begging or something even more onerous. A number of effective strategies exist to turn negative perceptions into positive, satisfying experiences. With the right training and support, board members can make important contributions to fundraising success.

Understand and Change Perceptions
It’s understandable that board members fear fundraising. Our society teaches us at an early age that money is a private matter. Talking about money or our personal wealth is considered rude. Children are told never to ask for money, and they carry this message into adulthood.

Nonprofit organizations need to acknowledge the dynamics of money while recognizing that people tend to be very open about their philanthropy. Donors won’t discuss how much they give, but they will talk about the causes that inspire their commitment.

It’s important to remember that fundraising isn’t just about money; it’s about developing relationships. That’s why I sometimes use the term “development” rather than “fundraising.” Development takes a more holistic view. It matches the values and interests of donors and board members with the needs of nonprofit organizations. That’s the basis of a mutually satisfying relationship.

Define the Role in Writing
I often say that no one is born a board member. Yet many nonprofit organizations don’t have written descriptions for the job. Instead, these organizations assume that board members will automatically know what to do because they’re well-educated people in high-status positions.

This assumption comes with risks. Many people join boards simply because someone they know and like has asked them to participate. When there’s a gap in their understanding of the responsibilities of their role, board members don’t engage in fundraising. They may be willing to do it, but they may not know how. They may believe it’s sufficient to give of their time and expertise. Sometimes they don’t even realize they’re supposed to be involved in fundraising.

Creating a written job description can help a nonprofit organization avoid these fundraising pitfalls. It’s also important to have a sensitive conversation with board members about their own gifts, the value of 100 percent board participation in giving and how they can serve as ambassadors to civic groups and foundations that might support the organization.

For both board members and organizations to succeed in fundraising, clarity of expectations is essential.

To  read part 2 of this article click this link: The Fundraising Challenge: Bringing the Board on Board, Part 2

Gary Kelsey is a core faculty member in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Walden University. He also has provided assistance and training to more than 250 nonprofit, philanthropic, education and government organizations. Email:  gary.kelsey@waldenu.edu

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