Bite-Sized Fundraising

March 20, 2012

Three Tips for Helping Board Members Tackle the Challenge of Fundraising

Almost every organization wants their board members to be more actively involved in fundraising, but how to do this effectively remains one of the big questions of the nonprofit sector. Most of us have tried the time-honored “you’re the board, please go raise some money, it’s your job!” And we’ve also asked people to open their address books or “open doors.” Mostly what we’re left with is a sense of frustration and missed opportunities all around.

While it’s true that the board should look for ways to support fundraising, I find that these broad, general requests for help aren’t specific enough to get results. They assume that board members know the best ways to fundraise…and that they want to be doing it all the time. Rather than take this too-general approach, consider some of these tips for jump starting your board fundraising efforts.

1) Break your fundraising down into bite-sized mini-campaigns.

Board members struggle with the ongoing, seemingly endless parade of fundraising activities that the organization needs. Staff gets used to this reality – we land a $50,000 gift in the morning, and by lunchtime we’re off to our next prospect. But board members don’t have this kind of stamina for the fundraising grind. They tend to do better when their fundraising participation is organized as a series of short-term mini-campaigns with defined goals – and a clear ending date.

Try using the fundraising gala model for all your board fundraising work. One of the reasons that galas appeal to board members is that they have a start and end date, and a very clear list of tasks that need to be accomplished. You can break your other fundraising strategies down in a similar way. For example, one organization wanted to renew its lapsed donors before the end of the year. They formed a team of three board members and the Executive Director, agreed to work on this between mid-March and the end of June, and set a goal for how many renewals they would try to secure. They split up the list of lapsed donors, and signed letters asking them to renew their gifts. After a few weeks, they made phone calls to those who had still not renewed. As year-end approached, they made thank you calls to those donors who had renewed. They reviewed their results, congratulated themselves on a job well done, and disbanded the work team.

This mini-campaign model seems more achievable to board members than just asking them to do more with individual donors. It is clear, focused, and time limited – so board members know they what they’re trying to accomplish, what needs to be done, and most importantly, when they will get a break from fundraising.

2) Deploy your board members in ways that make the best use of their talents.

We spend a lot of energy trying to build boards that are diverse in their skills, talents, connections, and backgrounds – and then we expect each member to do exactly the same thing. Instead of typing up a standard list of fundraising responsibilities (and being frustrated when each person does not carry them out in exactly the same way), try working with each board member to figure out what she or he can do to support revenue generation for the organization. Some folks are natural gift solicitors, others are great cultivators, others may have a flair for events or connections to foundations or corporations. Still others may be able to help you with building your earned revenue streams, which is equally as valuable. For example, one of my clients is a social service organization that generates 65% of their revenue from government contracts. They have a board member who is hugely connected in this area and is constantly finding new contract opportunities for them to pursue. It’s true, he’s not involved in “fundraising” – but he sure is doing a lot to promote the financial health of the organization. Isn’t that what we really want?

Having the board plugged in to different aspects of your revenue process is more effective, since it makes sure there is leadership support for all your different endeavors. Additionally, matching board members up with work they can do well means they will experience success – and be more likely to keep working hard in the future.

3) Balance staff support and board engagement.

This is one of the stickiest areas of board engagement in fundraising. The most valuable resource in any nonprofit is its staff time, and we have to be careful to invest it wisely. Often, getting board members more involved in fundraising takes a great deal of staff support with very little short-term financial gain. The long-term results can be worth it – but only if the board actually uses that staff support to propel their fundraising efforts forward.

We have to be more honest and forthright with each other about this difficult topic. Organizational leadership – board and staff – should be more direct in stating what we hope board members will do. And board members need to be more honest about what they will or won’t do. The worst situation is one in which staff members spend valuable time preparing materials meant to enable board member fundraising, and then no board member actually uses them. Working together, we can better balance staff support for board member engagement in fundraising with our short and long-term results.

4) And a bonus suggestion – make sure the board understands your organization’s revenue model and how it really works.

This isn’t a bite-sized project; it’s more like a full meal. Many boards lack understanding of where the organization’s revenue really comes from, and what has to be done in order to bring it in. How do you know if this is true for your board? Does anyone ever have any questions about the revenue side of the financial statements? When revenue projections are off, does anyone bring up ideas to increase income – or do they jump straight to cutting expenses? Most importantly, when the annual budget is discussed, how much attention does the revenue side of the equation get?

Board members who don’t really understand where the money comes from are less likely to go out and get it. Encourage the board to really break down the numbers – do we have enough revenue? Where is it coming from? Are those sources renewable in the immediate future? Does this revenue plan move us towards stability in future years? These bigger conversations will help board members see the big picture – and make them more likely to understand how critical their role can be when it comes to fundraising.

For more on how understanding your organization’s revenue model can jumpstart board fundraising efforts, please check out the video below:

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And don’t forget to check out our growing library of video tips from Dodge capacity building trainers talking about everything from Assessment to Lifecycles and Board building to Fundraising. Check back monthly for new installments!

Allison Trimarco is the founder and principal of Creative Capacity, a consulting firm that collaborates with nonprofits to find creative solutions to management challenges. She is also an affiliated consultant and instructor at The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University.