Guest Series: Developing Your Board Leadership

March 22, 2010

The Dodge Foundation is nearing the end of the second annual Board Leadership Training series led by the talented trainers of The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business.

Over the past six months, teams of board members and executive leadership attended workshops ranging from Nonprofit Lifecycles, Assessment, Board Care and Feeding, Strategic Planning, Board Fundraising, Board Financial Management, Board/Staff Relationships and Succession Planning. We have heard terrific feedback and ideas from many board members who are actively applying the learning to their board work. We thought that every Board, large or small, start-up or mature, could benefit from learning from their peers. So over the next several weeks, we will feature Board members (and a few executive directors) as Monday guest bloggers to tell their stories of implementing change with their board. They will share their challenges and successes. We hope you will share yours as well and help us create a Board Development Learning Community.

We are kicking off this series today with Allison Trimarco, one of our trainers who spoke on a popular subject: board fundraising. She covered a lot of ground in her day-long seminar, but in this post, she captures one of the major takeaways and offers a wonderful exercise that you can try with your own board.

He’s Just Not That Into You

Matchmaking Between Nonprofits and Donors
by Allison Trimarco

Broken Heart by Sister72
Photo courtesy Sister72/Flickr

I spend a lot of time talking with nonprofit staff and board members about fundraising – what’s working, what’s not, and most frequently, how to get board members more involved in fundraising efforts. Everyone wants their board members to be active participants in raising money for the mission, but nobody has figured out a foolproof method for motivating these otherwise devoted volunteers to take on this critical task.

When I ask leaders what they wish more board members would do, the most common response is introduce new people to our organization, and ask them for their support. Essentially, we want our board members to be matchmakers between our nonprofits and prospective donors, finding people who are going to feel that spark of excitement when they meet us.

This kind of matchmaking is one of the most valuable ways a board member can support his organization, but people are often reluctant to do it. I think professional matchmakers could tell us an important reason behind this reluctance to participate – if the spark is just not there, there’s no point in pushing the relationship. But in our efforts to find new supporters for our mission, this is often what we do.

If a prospective donor doesn’t return repeated phone calls, if they don’t attend events, if they seem reluctant to get together when you invite them to lunch, well, they’re just not that into you. Not every cause is for every person, and it’s not possible to convert everyone you meet into an enthusiastic donor. Continuing to pursue a prospect when their behavior is clearly signaling that they’re not into you is not effective fundraising.

This kind of continued rejection is one of the things that make board members reluctant to fundraise. No one wants to be the person who has to keep calling and calling someone who doesn’t really want to hear from them – none of us liked this feeling when we were dating in high school, and most people don’t want to experience it as part of their community service. It’s okay to let a prospect go if they don’t seem that interested. In fact, it’s the smart, self-respecting thing to do. Don’t ask your board members to spend their energy chasing prospects that will never amount to anything. If you want them to be your matchmakers, let them assess whether or not the “spark” seems to be there, and if it’s not, move on.

How do you know if your fundraising program is (unintentionally) creating “he’s just not that into you” situations for your board members?

  1. Prospects stay on a board member’s contact list for years, even though they have never made a significant gift. This is akin to having dinner with an ex-boyfriend a couple of times a year, even though it’s clear you are never going to get married.
  2. Your prospect list is full of people who are not connected to your organization in any meaningful way. I think of these as the “random rich people” – names of well-known or wealthy people that get tossed around a lot during meetings. Are you asking board members to reach out to these people even if they don’t know them, and the prospect has never demonstrated any interest in the kind of work you do? If so, you’re basically asking them to respond to a “blind box” personal ad in a newspaper.
  3. You’re spending a lot of time organizing different events that are attended by the same people. “Friend-raising” events have a role to play in any fundraising program, but if you’re having trouble getting new people to attend, you should think about a change in approach. Investing time and money in hosting multiple events where the same small group of people gets together and chats won’t bring new donors to the organization – and it distracts board members from meeting new people who could become donors. It’s like hanging out in the same bar every Friday night hoping someone new will come in.
  4. Your board hasn’t spent any time thinking about the right kind of donors for your organization. Sustainable funding comes from solid, long-term relationships that meet the needs of everyone involved. It can be easy to have your head turned by flashier prospects, but these folks may not be “marriage material.” If you don’t know who you’re looking for, you’re likely to waste a lot of time on the road to finding the perfect match.

How do you figure out who you’re looking for? Here’s an easy group exercise that you can try at any board meeting to help your matchmakers look for the people who are right for you. All you need is flip chart paper and a marker.

Step 1: Think like a donor, not like a fundraiser.

All of our board members are donors – hopefully to your nonprofit, but also to other charities that matter to them. Ask them to think about why they choose to say yes or no when they are asked for a donation. Put your list of reasons why they say yes or no side-by-side on your flip chart, so you can compare them. Chances are, it will illustrate two fundraising truths: 1) people give to the causes that matter to them, when it is convenient for them to do so, and 2) approaching fundraising in a way that is respectful to the donor is always the most effective technique. This exercise helps remind us all that there are two sides to every fundraising relationship.

Step 2: Why do people like us?

Once you’re in the habit of thinking like a donor, ask yourselves why donors might be interested in supporting your organization. Be careful to avoid “insider” reasons that might be very important to longtime board and staff members, but wouldn’t inspire a new supporter. Think of it this way: on a first date, you don’t tell stories about a previous relationship. You talk about who you are today and the exciting things going on in your life right now. Longtime supporters sometimes want to start a conversation with a prospect by telling the organization’s life story – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Really great matchmakers focus the conversation on today’s achievements and tomorrow’s vision, and relate that to the prospect’s own charitable motivations. Once it looks like the relationship might be going somewhere, you can learn more about each other’s history. To help board members feel more prepared for these “first dates,” spend some time talking about the strengths of your mission and your organization. Understanding this will help you to identify the types of people who are likely to be inspired by your work, making it easier for board members to find new matches.

Step 3: Where are our red flags?

Finally, ask yourselves honestly: why might people hesitate to give to us? Have you been in the news recently for something negative or controversial? Is your cause difficult to understand and embrace? Are your programs effective and your finances strong? Facing these issues head on will help you decide if you need to invest in a bit of a makeover before you send your matchmakers out to look for Mr. or Ms. Right.

The impact of the recession on fundraising is real, and it may be a while before we see more favorable conditions. Helping board members find new ways to generate support for the mission will be a key priority for most organizations, but many continue to think of fundraising as a nerve-wracking, distasteful activity to be avoided at all costs. In reality, fundraising is just the transfer of passion about a cause from one person to another – and our board members are some of the most passionate people around. Encouraging them to share their passion for the mission with the right people – people who are truly into your work and enjoy knowing more about it – is the best way to bring out the matchmaker in everyone.

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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.

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