Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

May 16, 2011

Boards missing in action on fundraising

By Todd Cohen

Nonprofits need to do a better job asking their boards to ask for money and, equally if not more important, helping them understand that effective fundraising depends on building a culture of philanthropy at their organization that connects their mission to the needs of the community.

The fact that boards are missing in action on what should be one of their core responsibilities is one of the worst-kept secrets in the nonprofit world.

But two new reports suggest a big part of the problem lies with nonprofits’ failure to engage their boards in fundraising.

According to an informal online poll by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, or AFP, that got 838 responses, the part of their job that gives fundraisers the most anxiety is trying to get their board involved in fundraising.

“Board members play an important role in fundraising because they are greater spokespersons for the charity they serve and they can speak with authority on the impact of the organization,” Andrew Watt, AFP president and CEO, says in a statement.

“However, many board members focus more on the fiscal management and operations aspects of their responsibilities,” he says, “and it can be challenging for fundraisers to get them involved in raising money.”

That sounds like denial: A central requirement for joining a board should be a commitment to help raise money, and a core job for nonprofit staff should be to make sure their boards are asking for money.

Indeed, any board member who fails to get involved in fundraising or claims he or she does not know fundraising is expected of board members must be living on another planet and has no business being on a board.

A separate survey by Cygnus Applied Research, the consulting firm headed by fundraiser Penelope Burk, finds that, while donors say “being asked by a leadership volunteer” is what influences them more than anything else to give, and to give generously, nonprofits are doing a poor job preparing their boards to help raise money.

Among nearly 3,500 donors surveyed who were current or recent board members – part of a much larger online questionnaire to which over 22,000 North American donors responded -- only one in three said their nonprofits required all board members to help raise money, only 39 percent received any kind of fundraising training, only 6 percent said their nonprofits had a budget to train board members, and only 18 percent said their boards evaluate their fundraising performance.

The survey attributes some of the difficulties boards experience to nonprofits’ nominating committees “that do not function year-round or have loose or vague requirements of candidates regarding fundraising.”

For those and other reasons, the survey says, fundraisers are “leaving money on the table.”

Crushed by the damaged economy and the surge in demand for services it has fueled, nonprofits are struggling to continue to serve clients and keep their doors open and lights on.

So they should use every resource they can find to generate the support they need, and boards should be one of a nonprofit’s best fundraising resources.

Effective fundraising, however, requires not just knowing and using the techniques of asking, but also understanding and helping donors see the connection between the mission of the organization and the needs of the community.

If nonprofits fail to build a culture of philanthropy and make sure their boards ask for money, and if boards fail to understand the value and role of philanthropy, and to ask for support, they will be asking for failure and will have no one to blame but themselves if their organizations fail to survive.


  • At 12:24 PM, Blogger Carolynn said…

    Hi Todd,

    I work for a mid-sized community foundation. Just last week we held the first of two trainings we'll be providing this year for our grantees- particularly *Board members* of our grantee organizations - focusing specifically on the role of the Board. This first workshop was more general re: their governance role, recruitment, etc. but it did touch on the Board's role in fundraising, and our fall workshop will likely be focused *primarily* on this issue.

    I think there are plenty of Board members who honestly do NOT understand that the Board should play a vital role in fundraising (because the expectation is not made clear at the time of their recruitment, or even later on at Board meetings), so perhaps 'living on another planet' is a bit of an overstatement, especially when we're talking about very small, or new organizations with no "professional" fundraisers on staff, or who have Board members who may not be the ‘typical’ wealthy community leaders who have sat on dozens of Boards. As nonprofits work to diversify and democratize their governance (inviting former clients to be Board members, reaching out to marginalized populations in the community, etc.), which is an admirable pursuit, it means that Board members may not be stepping into their role with a lot of background knowledge about what the Board *should be* doing. The Board probably understands that *someone* has to raise the money, but they don't necessarily know how. Anecdotal feedback from our workshop last week indicates that our grantees often feel as though they just have to feel their way in the dark, and that there is a distinct lack of knowledge about where to find training/education for Boards (which is something we’re obviously hoping to change, as the local community foundation).

    For organizations WITH professional/paid staff, large or small, I would agree there is little excuse for NOT tapping into the Board's time/talent/treasure, but again, in my experience, even "professional" fundraisers may not be seasoned or exceptionally well-trained.

    I couldn’t agree more with you that a truly effective nonprofit fundraising plan will begin with the board, but realistically, how many of the million+ nonprofits in the U.S. even HAVE a specific fundraising plan? The larger, sophisticated organizations, sure. But they’re a small percentage of the sector- NCCS reports that nearly ¾ of public charities have annual expenses under half a million dollars, and nearly HALF are under $100,000 annually. That’s a LOT of little bitty nonprofits.

    Another issue that exacerbates the problem is turnover- of both staff and board. Even if one Board Chair totally ‘gets’ the way things should be done, or one staff person puts a good plan in place, they may not be around for long. Institutional memory and turnover are major challenges, for every aspect of an agency’s effective operations, which definitely includes effective fundraising.

    All this is to say: your post is a great reminder of the ‘best case scenario’- and I think you’re providing spot-on encouragement for agencies to think logically about where their first, best prospects should be found. And if Board members are shocked that they’re being asked to give or participate in fundraising- then it’s an opportunity for education (one of MANY opportunities)!

    Carolynn L. Sween


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