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The Myths and Realities of Board Members and Fundraising

April 2008

Where is our dream trustee who can solicit gifts with passion and energy? Unfortunately few board members fit this ideal. One of the biggest myths perpetuated in fundraising is that most board members are willing and able to raise money.

The reality of the situation is that our board members have some very real challenges when they are confronted with fundraising. Their actual performance in this area is quite different from our expectations of them.

While we hope, wish, and dream of board members who will help raise friends and funds, this desire is often based on a myth we are making up in our heads, not actual reality. Let's clearly acknowledge the reality of the situation with our boards—so we can change it—and ourselves. We can play a major role in resolving this problem.

1. MYTH: Board members are willing to raise money, and they accept it as their job.

REALITY: Most board members run the other way when you mention the word fundraising. They are in fact quite nervous about it. When I hold fundraising retreats with board members, we have frank conversations about their feelings. They tell me they feel awkward, they don't want to impose on their friends, they don't want to be presumptuous, and most of all they fear rejection.

Quite simply, most of our board members are afraid of fundraising. They are anxious about making calls. They think it is unseemly and inappropriate.

And even when they agree to call a prospective donor, many times they chicken out at the last minute and find reasons to put off that phone call. They often say they will and then they don't. And do you know why? We have not set them up with fantastic training, inspiration, and top-notch staff support.

While many board members are happy to be friend-raisers, they don't want to be put in the situation of having to ask for a gift.

It takes not courage alone but also tremendous commitment to tackle something really scary and stick with it. I have the utmost respect for the brave board members who are quite nervous about fundraising but courageously step up to the plate regardless of their fear, because they are so committed to the cause.

What can we do about this? We can't expect board members to be as sure of themselves as we professionals are. We have been at it for years; we are trained; we work hard to learn the best techniques. Our board members usually have none of these advantages.

Most are just well-meaning volunteers, inexperienced and untrained. For us to expect that they can go out and instantly be successful is delusional. We have not educated them properly about the philosophy of fundraising. And we can't expect them to perform until we give them the training and support that they need.

2. MYTH: Board members are active, enthusiastic, and ready to help.

REALITY: Many board members are not sufficiently committed to or involved in their organizations' good work to tackle fundraising. They are not fully engaged in or passionate enough about their organizations to be willing to venture out into the unknown territory of fundraising. In fact, most board members are simply kind-hearted people who want to help their communities and do good works in their spare time.

Engaging board members in fundraising has to start at the beginning—with the quality and involvement of your board itself. Before you even bring up the topic of fundraising, your trustees have to be engaged, active, excited, and involved.

There is a way to get your board members to step up to the plate and not run the other way. You have to get them super-charged up and deeply committed to their own passion—the change they want your organization to achieve out in the world—the guts of your mission—the ultimate impact of changing or saving people's lives.

In my Get Fired Up for Fundraising board retreats, we always start with the board members sharing why they care enough to volunteer on this board. We talk about why the mission speaks to their hearts.

When you can awaken your board members' inner passion for the cause, then you have an opening to talk about their role in fundraising. If you go straight to a conversation about "asking," you'll scare them off. Start first by grounding them in their passion and enthusiasm. Why did they join the board anyway?

There is a serious problem when trustees are disconnected from the work and mission of their organizations. We have all seen too many boards with members who are not particularly knowledgeable about their organization or the results it is achieving.

The board members themselves are not necessarily to blame. Trustees are often dissatisfied with their own experience. Talented and high-achieving people, they are typically asked to do low-level, meaningless work that does not inspire action or create commitment, much less tap their real creative talent.

It is time for us to recognize this most important reality about board members and their lack of involvement: If you have a situation in which your board is disconnected or not engaged, then its members will not—repeat, not—tackle fundraising enthusiastically.

They may get dragged into fundraising, but they will not do it with passion, care, and heart. If they are not fired up enough about your organization, they will avoid you when you even mention fundraising.

To be sufficiently motivated to venture into fundraising, these talented men and women need to have the chance to "own" the organization's goals, mission, plans, and challenges. They need to feel that they are active contributors to, and part of, your organization's success.

3. MYTH: Board members understand how to be successful at fundraising.

REALITY: Board members don't understand fundraising at all. They are especially unfamiliar with the full context of fundraising, that of developing long-term relationships for the long run. They make up their own awful stories about fundraising. Unfortunately, many trustees equate fundraising with begging and the unpleasant experience of asking for money.

We know that fundraising is really the entire effort of developing friends/donors/investors/partners who are on our organization's team, willing to stick with our cause for the long run, providing both money and moral support for our mission.

But our board members are stuck, really stuck, in a very uncomfortable place, because the idea of asking for money strikes anxiety and fear into most nice, well-meaning board members' hearts.

Most board members don't know how to be passionate, articulate spokespeople for their organization. Board members do not fully understand their organization, the impact it makes, or its mission well enough to talk about it.

I hear too often from board members that they don't know what to say about their organization. This is our responsibility—we give our board members plenty of materials, but often it is not the right information or is too full of jargon for board members to use effectively.

Again, we can fix this: We need to help them learn what to say—and how to say it. It is up to us to make sure each board member is comfortable with his or her own personal elevator speech—one that comes from his or her heart, not one that is full of marketing messages. When board members speak from their own passion for the mission, they are at their most powerful. We just need to give them practice and encouragement.

Considering their lack of training in fundraising, board volunteers can hardly be expected to be wildly enthusiastic and successful at something they may have never done. They need lots of training on how to approach fundraising and plenty of support to get their jobs actually completed. Fundraising will never be an activity that we can delegate to the board and happily go off on our programmatic way.

4. MYTH: Board members' experience on the board is fulfilling and satisfying.

Reality: The role of a nonprofit trustee today is just as likely to be confusing and demoralizing as invigorating and rewarding. We are not paying the attention we need to our boards as a whole and to their individual members.

The care and feeding of our board members is an oft-neglected art. And I do not say that lightly—it really is an art. Drawing a board member into happy action on behalf of our cause is much like the delicate process of cultivating a potential major donor.

No wonder our board members are not more active. We have to spend the effort to deepen their relationship with our organizations. We can evoke what they are passionate about and fan the flames of their desire to see change happen for the good.

We have to be present, listen to them, offer varying ways they can become involved, and act on their suggestions. It is called cultivating their involvement—just like we do with our donors.

You can create partners out of your board members and have them actively participate and be deeply passionate about your mission and outcomes.

We need to be sure that the experience that board members have is worth their time and energy. This experience gets to be meaningful at some personal level. They get to have a sense of offering something of worth to the organization. If you can create this sense of accomplishment in your board members, then their reluctance to raise money will begin to dissolve.

Read the other articles in this series:

Gail Perry, April 2008
© 2008, Gail Perry. Based on Fired Up Fundraising: Turn Board Passion into Action; printed with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

This article is the second in a series on helping board members embrace fundraising. Gail Perry is the author of Fired Up Fundraising: Turn Board Passion into Action and founder of Gail Perry Associates, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based consulting and training firm. During the past 22 years, she has helped organizations raise more than $200 million—and counting.