Getting Board Members to Give
My perspective on boards is unique both in its optimism and its frustration. As a for-profit consultant helping nonprofits create a great experience for their board members, I see the tremendous opportunities if a few important pieces are brought into alignment. But as a nonprofit board member myself, I am often left unsatisfied by my experience, lose my passion and find my eyes wandering to another board on which I could do more good - and have more fun.
Over the last few years, my firm has conducted best practices research about what factors lead to success in fundraising. Any guess what the No. 1 indicator is? How much the governing board gives.
If this is the case - and we've found it to be so across the board, regardless of industry - then why don't we do more to create the best possible environment in which boards can work? Why are we forever asking, "What can my board do for me?" instead of, "What can I do with my board?"
This question led me to a second round of research in which I interviewed high-value board members from around the world. Where our best practices collected data, this research effort collected experiences, and remarkably, both studies found the same thing: an engaged, happy board gives more. Combining the results from both led me to discover the nine truths about what nonprofit board members really want from their experience.
Board members want:
1. Stellar board makeup
They want to like and respect those with whom they serve. They want to feel comfortable but challenged, part of a team yet surrounded by people they admire.
2. Passion for the cause
While who else serves on the board was noted more often than any other driver, a close second was passion. And, while passion can certainly grow over time, recruiting someone to the board with name and network but no passion all but guarantees an empty seat.
3. The right CEO or ED
Those interviewed had so much to say about this important piece of the puzzle. The "right" CEO/executive director means something different to every organization, but this person must always be vocal and visible, dedicated to the cause, articulate in his or her presentation of mission, and available - as a partner and a friend - to the board. If not, there is no chance for harmony and little chance for success in fundraising.
4. Social time
With so many high-powered board members, you may be tempted to race through meetings, conscious of their valuable time. But what most board members really want is some social time with their colleagues on the board. I know that some of my closest friends are fellow board members. We've been through a lot together, and without time to share thoughts, bond with allies and get to know one another, our board (and our relationships) would have been weaker for it.
5. Trust and transparency
This one is simple: If you want your board to trust you, don't hide things from it. As all great PR executives know, the warts and scars will pop up eventually. Get board member -finances, history, personal conflicts - out on the table so board members can ask questions and understand the issues completely. Letting them find out on their own will squelch any chance you have to build trust and will sow the seeds of doubt for as long as they serve.
6. The right kind of ask
Those who've served on a board know why they're there. "Join our board" can be loosely translated into "Show me the money." But, just because they know you need their money doesn't mean you need to make them feel that way. Instead, show them that you value them - not just their money - before you ask for their gifts (even if they're expecting the ask).
7. The ability to get their hands dirty
We often think that board members are too busy, too smart or too sophisticated to want to actually get down in the trenches, but my research found just the opposite to be true. The most satisfying experiences I've heard were from board members who are invited to share their for-profit skill sets, but also encouraged them to try new things, experiment and, yes, get their hands dirty.
8. Meaningful education
If you ever want to see a board member cross her arms and say, "Harumph," mention the word "training." As a trainer by nature, I try not to take this too personally, but I realized one thing about those I interviewed: Their brains are full. It's not that they don't want to learn anything new - just the contrary. They want targeted education that enhances their current skill sets, not a clever workshop on the next big thing.
9. Great board experience leads to increased desire to contribute
The final truth in my findings is also the result of a perfectly aligned organization: A great board experience will inevitably lead to an increased desire to contribute. That is, when all these truths are actively pursued, when attention is paid to creating a dynamic, engaging environment in which the board operates, nonprofits will be rewarded by boards that contribute their brain power, their experience, their networks and ultimately their financial support as well.
For nonprofits that are able to implement these easy-to-say, hard-to-execute elements, the reward is great: alignment, the perfect harmony between what the organization needs to succeed and what the board members want to thrive.
June Bradham is the founder and president of Corporate DevelopMint, a strategic fundraising consulting firm with more than 20 years of service to the nonprofit community. Her first book, "The Truth About What Nonprofit Boards Want: Nine Little Things That Matter Most," was released by Wiley & Sons in May 2009. June, and the Corporate DevelopMint consultants, are available for retreats and interactive workshops which use groundbreaking survey instruments to help get leadership and board members into alignment.