Boards: The Secret Superheroes of Fundraising
Whenever I bring up the subject of boards, so many fundraisers roll their eyes. Why are boards such a huge pain point — and what can we do about it?
You have to face reality about some sensitive topics — people, motivation, volunteers and commitment — rather than chase after some myth of the ideal board. Be realistic and see what you really can expect from board members — particularly in the area of fundraising. Get your expectations in the right order and you'll have a happy relationship — and a productive one — with your board.
Here's what you can count on — and what you can't — with your board members.
What you can count on
1. Most board members really do want to help. They just don't know how. It's up to you to make it easy for them. You'll need to motivate, guide and support them. If you make this investment of your time and energy, then you'll have a gold mine of great board members on your hands.
2. Most board members are open to and even enjoy education. They don't like "training," but they do like "education." June Bradham, author of "The Truth About What Nonprofit Boards Want," says that the word "training" makes them feel like seals. Most board members are eager to do a good job and want to know what their jobs are. The clearer your job expectations are for board members, the more you'll get out of your board.
3. Most board members are capable of being terrific friendmakers if they know the right thing to say and they are pumped up. But you need to teach them what friendmaking is all about, or they could go in the wrong direction.
4. Most board members are happy to help thank donors. In fact, they love it! And you can increase donors' future gifts if your board members make thank-you calls quickly to donors.
5. Most board members can be terrific "sneezers," spreading the viral message around your community. Just make sure they practice what to say in a comfortable, natural fashion.
What you can't count on
1. You can't expect them to be good at soliciting. That's a special skill and personality type. Frankly, I don't even want all my board members out there soliciting, because some of them would not be very good at it. Treasure the board members who are good at soliciting, and find other productive jobs for those who are better at other things.
2. You can't expect them to show up at every event. You need to tell them what your priorities are — what's essential and what's optional. Then, when they have a clear idea of what you need from them, they can give it to you.
3. You can't expect them to know exactly what to say. You might think they know the mission, vision and case for support, but they need practice, practice, practice putting it into their own words.
4. You can't expect them to maintain their passion on their own. It's your job to keep them pumped up and excited about the cause. If you do, you'll have an enthusiastic, fired-up team helping you spread the word and make connections.
5. You can't expect them to keep coming to boring meetings. Busy people will flee if they feel their time is not used well. If you liven up your meetings, then you'll also liven up your board.
So set your own expectations correctly, provide the leadership and support your board needs, and you'll be rewarded with a high-performing team.
But what about fundraising?
However, even the most highly motivated board can fall flat when it comes to fundraising. Remember that most board members are afraid of fundraising because they're embarrassed and fear rejection. And they generally are not sure what your expectations are of them.
If your board members flee when they're asked to help fundraise, you need a new approach and some new ideas. So here is a wildly different approach to try: Tell them they don't have to ask if they don't want to.
Find some practical, easy ways your board members can help in fundraising, without soliciting. They can open doors and help you find new friends and donors — without having to flat-out ask for money.
Here are my five favorite ways to use board members in fundraising, without soliciting. It's just the start of a long list of productive jobs they can do to raise friends, thank donors and help create a sustainable fundraising effort.
1. Make friends for the cause. You need to capitalize on your board members' personal social networks to further your organization's urgent work solving community problems. The job is clear: You have to ask your board members to introduce your organization to everybody they know.
Your board members need to be roaring advocates for your organization; they need to talk about it wherever they go. They should be all over their friends, telling them why it matters and urging them to get involved. Actually, you want your board members to start an epidemic of good news about your cause that will spread through your community.
So many CEOs tell me that the No. 1 thing they would love from their board members is a willingness to open the door to new prospects. And that board members just don't like to do that. They often say they will, but then they chicken out at the last minute.
So how do you get them to help in this all-important area? You have to teach them the steps to opening the door happily and successfully.
Step 1: They need a personal message that is inviting and inspiring. They need practice with an elevator speech, but it can't be learned or memorized. It has to be their own personal story of why they care!
Step 2: They need to be happy, fired-up and passionate. If they are, they'll be engaging. If they are embarrassed about what they're up to, then they put people off. Energy — positive or negative — is contagious.
Step 3: They have to have the right attitude. Everything starts with attitude. You have to get your mind-set right before you can make anything happen in the world. Your board members might need some "attitude adjustment" every now and then.
Sometimes all it takes to get them pumped up about the cause at hand is to take the fear of asking off their plates. Remind them that they are trying to raise friends and not necessarily funds. (But, of course, friends of your organization will give, as well as help in many other ways.)
Step 4: They have to be willing to follow up. Say your wonderful board member has inspired a friend with her passionate story about your organization. She has contagious energy and an enthusiastic attitude.
All this is wasted unless she can say, "Can you come down for a tour?" Or, "I'm having a small group over to my house next week to meet the new director; can you come?" Or, "Can I take you out for coffee and get your ideas on how we tackle this huge community problem?"
Somehow, some way, when a board member gets the door open for a second conversation, you're on your way to a donation.
2. Gather friends with small social events. You can expand your community relationships and make friends fast through small gatherings. This job is perfect for board members who have many friends and like to socialize.
A small social can take several formats. It can be hosting a coffee get-together, tea, dinner, a porch party, cookout or cocktails. It can be breakfast meetings or luncheons. It can include three people or 100.
Follow these rules for a successful small event:
- A board member or volunteer invites people and hosts it.
- There is no charge.
- It is a cultivation event designed to fire up people about your cause.
- A plan is in place for following up after the event; if not, don't do the event at all.
Small socials always have a short presentation in the midst of the socializing. The board volunteer host should welcome everyone, and the CEO should give a short, high-impact message with a clear call to action at the end.
3. Become a tour guide. A carefully scripted tour of your facility can be a powerful way to demonstrate your organization's good work and illustrate unmet needs in the community. It lets your work speak for itself, and board members can host tours to bring prospective friends closer to your organization.
Your guests will hear staff members or even clients/students/stakeholders express in their own words their personal, firsthand experiences with your organization's mission — and the good it does in the community.
Like a small social, a well-planned tour also has the board volunteer's welcome, the CEO's visionary message and a solid follow-up plan.
4. Open the door with advice visits. Even though there is a gold mine of potential friends and donors within your board members' social networks, many probably aren't sure how to open the door to their contacts without seeming pushy.
But they can ask their friends for advice, guidance and counsel about their favorite projects. And they can do it in person. "If you want money, ask for advice," the saying goes. "If you want advice, then ask for money."
People are usually flattered when someone approaches them just to ask for advice. You would be surprised at the number of doors it can open.
5. Make thank-you calls to donors. One of the most powerful actions a board member can take is to phone to thank a donor soon after his or her gift is received. When board members call to thank donors, the donors receive a very powerful message. They think: "This organization appreciates me," "I am a real person to this organization, not just a checkbook," "This organization is well-run."
Donors who receive phone calls from board members invariably tend to give larger gifts the next time and stay on board as donors longer. Some studies have shown that donors who were called by board members within 24 hours of making gifts later made subsequent gifts that were 39 percent higher than donors who did not receive calls.
This means that board members can directly improve your organization's bottom line without having to solicit.
Try this test, and track your results. You'll be amazed:
- The next time you send an appeal, employ your standard thank-you processes — letters, personal notes, etc. But select a random group of donors for a special thank-you treatment.
- Organize your board members to make thank-you phone calls to these donors within 24 hours of the gifts being received.
- Have your board member talk to a real person if at all possible. After several tries, he or she can just leave a message that simply thanks the donor.
- The phone calls are not about asking for another gift. They are for stewardship only. Adventurous board members can ask donors why they chose to make their gifts. If they've been briefed on the donors' stories and can draw on that in their conversations, the donors will be even more pleased and honored.
- A few months later, send another solicitation to all your donors — both the ones who received the extra thank-you phone call and those who just received your regular thank-yous. And when repeat gifts come in, compare the results of both groups.
You'll find, when all other things are equal, that the donors who received prompt, personal thank-yous from board members within 24 hours of the gifts being received will give up to 39 percent more than the other group.
Here's how to make it happen
I know several organizations that have tried to implement thank-you calls to donors but couldn't achieve board member buy-in for the project. Board members would say, "Sure, I'll make some thank-you phone calls," but then failed. Many of the board members were not prompt. They were lackadaisical. They took assignments but didn't follow through.
Here are some thoughts on how to launch a successful thank-you call effort with your board members:
1. Share the statistics with your board members about the amazing results that happen when they make prompt, personal thank-you calls to donors. Be sure they understand the "why" of the project and the positive potential from making these calls promptly.
2. Have one board member take charge of the project and create a small committee. (Board members respond better to requests from a peer than requests from a staffer.)
3. Make sure the committee members are all focused, committed, understand that prompt timing is essential, and are ready/willing to do this. (Don't ask all board members to do this — only those who are willing to commit seriously.)
4. Give specific phone call assignments to each committee member. Don't send a whole list to the entire committee and hope that someone will make the calls.
5. Have each member report back weekly on the results of his calls.
One organization I know had all the board members post their thank-you call results on a shared Google Document. That way, each board member could see who was making calls. Word had it that a competition took hold, and each board member tried to outdo the others. The busiest person on the board made sure his calls were as up-to-date — or more up-to-date — as all the others.
Let me end with a story of my own: When I was consulting with the Orange County Rape Crisis Center a few years ago, I dragged my boyfriend to its annual fundraising auction. It was on a Sunday night and wasn't a big social event, but it was a nice, happy gathering.
I told my boyfriend, who had plenty of money, to bring his wallet because these were good people. I dragged him around deliberately and pointed out items that I liked. Well, bless his heart, he bought all this stuff that night.
Then the next day I was sitting in my office around 1 p.m. and got a call from him.
"Gail," he said, "you won't believe what just happened!"
He was clearly wrought up.
"What?" I replied anxiously.
"I'm speechless," he said. "I just got a phone call from a board member of the Rape Crisis Center thanking me for … for … for being the largest donor at the auction last night!
"I just can't believe it!" he gushed. "I've given money all over the country, and I've never gotten a call from a board member!"
I could feel him beaming over the phone. He was absolutely thrilled.
The next year, he was asking me, "Is the Rape Crisis Center having its auction this fall? I haven't gotten an invitation yet."
That year, he bought an entire table and hosted the president of the largest foundation in North Carolina at it. I think the Rape Crisis Center has him for life now!
To take away
Every member of your board is there for a reason. The key to having a relationship with your board members that is productive is to keep them enthused about and interested in the work you do, discover their individual strengths and embrace them, and don't define "fundraising" too narrowly as simply making an ask. FS