10 steps to engage your Board for better fundraising

Does your board engage in fundraising and take responsibility for your organisation’s revenue and growth? Or are they passive, or even invisible, in this process? 

If you feel your board could do more, you’re not alone. A 2018 study by the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) found that a quarter of board members thought they were underperforming in their role. When it comes to fundraising and engagement, most boards we work with acknowledge there’s room for improvement. 

There are many reasons why board engagement in fundraising may be lacking. Board members may have little understanding about fundraising, insufficient skills or unclear expectations about their role. Your organisation may not be communicating with them or supporting them in the right ways. 

In times of financial crisis, like COVID-19, fundraising often receives even less attention. Organisations tend to look inward—to programs, staffing and managing the business—rather than on external growth strategies.  

The good news is, there are solutions to these challenges. 

Here are 10 key areas you can address to start cultivating a board that not only supports, but amplifies, your fundraising efforts. 

   1. Recruit strategically

A good place to begin is to look at the composition and structure of your board. Do you have the right number of people, an appropriate gender balance, and mix of skills, knowledge and ages to fulfil the board’s responsibilities? One of these responsibilities is ensuring your organisation is financially secure, so when recruiting a board member, think about what they can offer to support growth and revenue. 

Do they have:

  • Business acumen?
  • Credibility with your stakeholders?
  • Strong links to your community?
  • The ability to advocate for your mission? 
  • A track record of donating to your organisation? 

It’s easier to get a donor to become a board member than to get a board member to become a donor. Existing donors can also help champion fundraising with your other board members.

   2. Nurture understanding and manage expectations

Most jobs have a position description so that employees understand their roles and responsibilities. The same should apply to board positions. 

Without a position description, your board members may not realise they have a role in fundraising and engagement, or that there’s an expectation to donate.  

To take this one step further, you could also develop a tailored contract for each board member. Ask them what they’re prepared to commit to for the year, and develop a win-win outcome. This could include event attendance, fundraising targets or engagement with donors.

This can help your board members take ownership of their role and set expectations that are transparent and achievable.

   3. Educate them

We’ve interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of board members, plus evaluated the philanthropic culture of numerous organisations, which has helped us to understand how stakeholders view philanthropy and their place in driving the organisation’s mission. And, I can tell you this: most boards don’t know what their role is in fundraising. This makes sense when you consider most board training focuses on governance skills, sector knowledge and risk management, according to an AICD 2017 study.

We need to educate board members about their fundraising responsibilities for your organisation. This is particularly critical during COVID-19, or any time there are financial challenges. 

In a crisis, many boards focus on financial preservation: cost-cutting and holding onto resources. But it’s important boards also make sure enough revenue is being generated to deliver your mission. As my Canadian counterpart, Guy Mallabone, would say: money drives mission. Boards that keep some focus on long-term growth will come out of COVID-19 much stronger than those only focusing on belt-tightening.     

Training programs can equip your board with the knowledge and skills to navigate this process. But leveraging your own expertise is just as valuable. Understand that you’re the expert when it comes to fundraising. Use your knowledge to properly orientate and educate your board in how they can take part in the process.

   4. Leverage a philanthropy subcommittee

Your board likely has a subcommittee for audit and risk. But what about philanthropy and fundraising? 

As part of my own board work, I’ve chaired such subcommittees and I can tell you it elevates the conversation about philanthropy and its role in the organisation’s business model. It helps give the board ownership. It also means philanthropy is actively monitored and reported on. 

If you don’t already have a philanthropy subcommittee, now’s the time to set the wheels in motion. And, don’t be afraid to recruit a fundraiser who believes in your cause to lead it—you’ll have a solid inside champion supporting you who gets what needs to be done and can shape the thinking of other board members.

   5. Distinguish between the Board and Board member

The indomitable Simone Joyaux addresses this point in her great book, Firing Lousy Board Members – and Helping the Others Succeed. (Buy it. It’ll be money well-spent!)

Your board is a collective entity, but it’s also a group of individuals. 

It’s not the role of your board to nurture relationships with donors or give to the organisation. These are roles board members perform as individuals.  

To build relationships with your board members, engage with them on an individual and personal level. Board members are ‘leadership volunteers’. Learn what motivates them, what excites them about your mission and what their skills are.  

This can help you identify what to tap into to support the growth of your organisation. For example, a board member may not feel comfortable asking for donations, but they may be able to open some doors at a corporate level or advocate with government.

   6. Know why members are on your board

Find out why board members joined the board and what they want to get out of it. Engage with them one-on-one as you would a donor, client, alumnus or member.

By understanding their goals and motivations, you’re in a good position to know how to support them. If you can align their individual needs with your organisation’s needs, then you have a clear path to build purposeful engagement and revenue.

   7. Bring them along slowly

Many board members worry you’re going to ask them for money or ask them to ask their friends for money. 

It’s imperative we recognise not everyone feels comfortable being asked for money or doing the asking—even fundraising professionals! 

To get Board members involved in the fundraising process, we need to approach them in a way that inspires their engagement. Simplify it for them. Trust that contract you both agreed to in Point 2.

Show them how philanthropy makes a difference to your organisation. Give them opportunities to hear firsthand why donors support the organisation. Get them to host a prospect at an event, or to personally host a small dinner or event. Ask them to speak to staff about why they’re involved in your organisation so that they can hear it in, and be inspired by, their own words. And, acknowledge their efforts. Support them to nurture relationships with donors.

These actions build interest and engagement over time. This allows you to slowly work up to positioning them for the next level of support for your organisation.     

   8. Focus on the donor fundraising cycle, not the ask

The donor cycle has five stages:

  1. Identifying potential supporters;
  2. Qualifying potential donors to make sure you’re spending your time on the right people;
  3. Cultivating the relationships by engaging with them more deeply;
  4. Soliciting a donation;
  5. Showing appreciation and accountability for the donation, otherwise called stewardship. 

Asking for money is maybe only 10 per cent of the equation. The remaining 90 per cent of your time should be focused on the planning and preparation involved before you even get to solicitation, and then determining what to do after asking for the gift.

There’s a lot to do to develop meaningful relationships, including cultivating, engaging, thanking and taking care of donors. Good stewardship is particularly relevant at the moment, when donors may be dealing with COVID-19 health concerns, increased fear and anxiety, job loss or other major financial impacts. We should be caring for our supporters like our closest allies and friends.  

It’s essential we realise board members can play a role in many stages of the donor cycle – we don’t need to pressure them to ask for money. Invite them to join you for a cultivation meeting with a potential donor (the more positive the existing donor relationship, the better!). One of the easiest ways to involve board members is to give them opportunities to thank donors and nurture existing relationships. How hard is it to say ‘thanks’? It’ll even make them feel good.

   9. Identify and report on key performance indicators (KPIs)

According to a 2016 study by AICD, 90 per cent of boards measure their performance and the performance of their organisation. Yet, despite financial security being a fundamental governance priority (along with strategic planning, compliance and monitoring), only 66 per cent measure performance against specific KPIs. And worse, only 22 per cent assess performance based on increases in donations and income. What gets measured, gets managed! 

Your organisation is not in the business of fundraising. It is simply a tool, albeit an important one, to fulfil your mission. So, it’s vital KPIs measure the outcomes, not just the outputs. Remember, money equals mission. 

When it came to assessing organisational effectiveness, the 2016 AICD study pointed out boards considered outcome measures in line with the organisation’s mission only 30 per cent of the time. The best way to help your board connect money with mission is to show the impact investments make. Identify the success stories and learn how to use qualitative measures like testimonials and case studies to tell them in a meaningful way. Connect them to the change they are making in the community.

   10. One size doesn’t fit all

The above principles apply whether you are in arts and culture, community support, education, healthcare, international aid, the environmental sector, or part of a religious organisation. 

But you should also know there’s not one solution that works for everyone. Each organisation has a unique set of circumstances that will impact your board’s engagement. This includes the culture of your board, organisation and community; your organisation’s resources; the skills and attributes of your board members; and the maturity of your organisation. 

Within Global Philanthropic, we describe it as being client-centred and culturally attuned, and it’s the basis for you to be a catalyst for change.