Board Leadership: Programming Your Nonprofit Fundraising GPS

April 1, 2015

Allison Trimarco


How to Help the Board Find a Fundraising Route that Works

We know that boards of directors can play a critical role in fundraising for a nonprofit — but we also know that this is a chronic area of concern for most organizations.

Allison Trimarco
Allison Trimarco

A recent study by BoardSource showed that both CEOs and board chairs give their boards an average grade of C when it comes to fundraising, and 60 percent of CEOs and 58 percent of board chairs identified it as the most important area for board improvement.

The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business  just published research that showed that 70 percent of executive directors are concerned about long-term financial sustainability, and 45 percent feel anxious about how to develop an engaged board. Aren’t these two worries often linked?

So what’s a leader to do? Most board members want to help, but it can be hard for them to figure out what to do and how to do it.

They need a clear road map that shows the options they can take to reach their destination (your fundraising goal for the year). Think of it as “Fundraising GPS” — a tool that offers different routes depending on each board member’s skills and preferences. Some might prefer the most direct route, while others want to avoid tolls or appreciate the scenery. Everyone can help — if they know what the pathways are.

So stop giving instructions like “we need the board to raise $50,000 by year-end,” and instead try an exercise like this, designed to get everyone on the same map heading toward the same destination. 

Building Your Fundraising Map

What do you need? Flip chart pages and markers for each small group

How long will it take? About 45 minutes, maybe an hour for a larger group

Who should facilitate? If you have access to an outside consultant, having her/him facilitate is often best. If not, this exercise should be facilitated by a board member — perhaps the Development Committee Chair or Board Chair.

It does not work well to have a staff member be the facilitator, since it is hard for staff to challenge the board as a group. Staff should be present to answer questions, spark ideas, and encourage the group’s enthusiasm.

  1. Before you start, be sure that the board understands the fundraising plan for the coming period. They have to know what your contributed income strategies are — otherwise they will suggest ideas that are unrelated to your existing plans. Someone — ideally an educated board member but the executive director if need be — should review the main fundraising strategies in place for the coming year.
  2. Divide into small breakout groups of three-to-four people each. Make sure each has some flip chart paper and markers.
  3. Ask each group to brainstorm actions that board members could take to support your planned fundraising efforts. Encourage them to think broadly, and include a wide range of activities, from quick, one-step tasks to larger projects. Allow 5-10 minutes for this brainstorming conversation.
  4.  Then, ask each group to rate each of their brainstormed activities, deciding whether each task would be “easy,” “medium,” or “stretch.”
  5. Look around to see how many ideas each group has generated. If the lists are long (or if you have a lot of groups), ask each group to pick its top five to seven ideas to share.
  6. Bring everyone back together as one large group. Go around the room several times, asking each group share one “easy” idea at a time. (IMPORTANT: don’t let any one group share all their ideas at once, or it will make other groups feel as though they had no original ideas). Repeat this round robin for the “medium” and “stretch” ideas. When you’re done, you’ll have master lists of “easy,” “medium,” and “stretch” ideas.
  7. Once you have this master list of ideas, gauge the group’s reaction by asking some specific questions:
    • Are there items on the list that some people feel belong in a different category? Why? Note: it’s not really important which category the idea winds up in, you are just trying to generate discussion about what feels challenging about fundraising.
    • Are there items on the list that you think you would really enjoy doing? What specifically makes you think they would be fun?
    • Are there items on the list that the board feels every board member should do (i.e., make a gift!)?
    • Are there items on the list that people feel totally incapable of or unwilling to do? Note: Really hear this feedback and let it influence which strategies you pursue, and/or how you pursue them. If we dismiss these kinds of strong reactions, we are setting ourselves up for failure.
    • What do you think you would need in order to be able to carry out some of these ideas (especially critical for stretch and medium tasks)?
  8. Get the group’s agreement (hopefully) that each member will consider this road map of options and decide which paths they can pursue as their contributions to the fundraising effort.
  9. After the meeting, produce a typed matrix of the road map, and get commitments from people as to what they will do and when. At this point, you can organize some of the work into short-term team projects, so that people have some support as they work.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand that turns every board into a group of exceptional fundraisers. If participation isn’t where you want it to be, the best strategy is to get board members to do something constructive.

Once people have gotten “on the road” and are enjoying the ride, it’s easier to suggest alternate routes, including those “stretch” tasks that generate the most reward for both the organization and the board member. Just remember to keep the GPS on so you don’t get lost on the way!

The author gratefully acknowledges the book “How to Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Fundraise, by Andrea Kihlstedt and Andy Robinson. This exercise is a blend of several of the useful strategies outlined in that book.

 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’s School of Business.