Alexandra Peters is a nonprofit consultant, educator, writer, and believer in the profound importance of effecting social change in the not for profit sector. For thirty years, Ms. Peters has worked to make the nonprofit world better. Today she does me the honor of guest-blogging! And apparently, she knew me when I was just a kid! True story!
You don’t have to look hard in the nonprofit world to find lots of advice about how to get your board to “get over their fear” for asking for money, to become more engaged in fundraising, to just get out there and raise money. The fact that there are so many books, webinars, blogs and workshops on this topic should tell you something to begin with: it ain’t working.
This isn’t surprising to me, because in thirty years of serving on boards, and after having asked dozens of people to join those boards, I can tell you that the single most common question I have been asked by prospective board members is, “I won’t have to make phone calls to ask for money, will I? I hate to ask for money.”
And yet somehow we continue to believe that these volunteers – who are, by the way, willing to take on the liability and accountability for an organization – can be transformed into askers who will ceaselessly pound their well heeled friends for money. They probably won’t. They most likely haven’t.
Okay, so if many of the board do not want their board role to cross into their personal life, what’s teh staff of nonprofits supposed to do to work most effectively with the board?
1) First and foremost, focus on seeing the board as a group of leaders, not a collection of individual donors. This mindset is critical to the success of nonprofits, who tend to focus on the short-term “What funds can this board member provide or get for us?” rather than the long term overview that is really the board’s job. And that’s the whole board as a group, a body who collectively make decisions and have one voice. Their roles as individuals are rarely critical to the life of the organization, but the organization is completely reliant on their decisions as a group.
2) Don’t turn your board meetings into pep rallies for donors. If your board meetings are thinly veiled sessions designed to increase board donations, the real work of your board is being undermined (and of course the board understands that they are being treated as donors, not overseers.) Focusing only on the board as donors gets in the way of the complex and demanding work the organization needs them to do. Let board meetings be about the board’s job.
3) Use the board as a sounding board. Ask their opinions about events, about people, about plans you have for development. And then listen. Really listen. A frequent complaint of board members is that they are smiled at too often, in a somewhat patronizing way. These are your organization’s most committed volunteers, your leadership. If you want them to take your work seriously, take them seriously.
4) Don’t dismiss the idea that “the ask” is costly for some. It can set up a quid pro quo system (if your friend buys a ticket to your benefit you have to buy one for theirs, etc…) as well as personal obligations that are often uncomfortable for people. Take this discomfort seriously – just because board members are well connected doesn’t mean that they are obligated to use their personal connections. Board members who feel too pressured about fundraising are rarely effective or committed board members because they will shy away from being around the organization.
5) Encourage board members to participate in ways that they enjoy. The credibility added by having a board member in a public role, or coming with staff to meetings, is an enormous asset. Try inviting board members to join you in your work, or suggest interesting options for them to consider in which they can shine as board members representing your organization, like these:
- Joining the staff on any advocacy meetings and site visits. This not only lends credibility, and also brings the perspective of board leaders, but it’s great training ground for board members.
- Accompanying the executive director or development staff on fundraising visits, again speaking as a board member. Individual board members have a powerful voice here, and again, lend credibility. (“Our board really cares.”) A lot of board members really enjoy doing this – it doesn’t put them personally on the spot.
- Speaking in public. People listen when a board member speaks out about the program and the organization. It’s impressive when the speaker is a member of a board and wants to talk about their experience and the work of that organization. Some boards have offered training in public speaking to their members.
- Writing editorials and opinion pieces, and responding to the writing of others, signing everything as a board member. It packs a punch when the voice is that of a leader of the organization.
Utilizing the strengths of your board members to represent the organization in their leadership role creates an engaged and committed board. And those are exactly the people you need to make the long term decisions for your organization.
Thank you very much Ms. Peters for sharing your wisdom on engaging boards! You are so right on. You should follow Alexandra Peters on Twitter @alexandrapeters