The Secret to Building a Great Fundraising Board

The oft-told frustrations of working with a board and development committee escaped me for a number of years.  You see, I had the good fortune, in my very first fundraising job, to work with a completely hands-off board and executive director.


Grant proposals went out with my signature on them – and were funded (a 93% increase in foundation funding within two years).  My first presentation to the board, a completely revamped annual appeal package, was greeted with oohs and ahs and sent out as written – to absolutely phenomenal results!

Talk about nirvana!

Of course, in my naiveté, I was unaware that this was not how all boards and executive directors worked.  I happily took on all of the fundraising, marketing and public relations work without complaining.  In fact, there never was a word of complaint from me … until a new executive director began tinkering with my work … *blanding* down appeal letters, re-writing grant proposals to render them lifeless.

Fast forward years later and, like all nonprofit fundraisers I’ve run into more than my fair share of interfering or outright dysfunctional boards.  In today’s guest post, The Secret to Building a Great Fundraising Board, Erica Holthausen provides some sound strategies for building a successful working relationship with your board.

A few weeks ago I had lunch with my friend Jane. Jane is the Executive Director of a great organization that is built around a core value of respect for human dignity and individual differences. I have always enjoyed visiting her at work because the organization embodies the very best characteristics of the nonprofit sector. As a result, I always leave feeling inspired to find and express the best parts of myself.

To see Jane so frustrated came as a bit of a shock.

Joppa Communications“Why won’t the board do anything?” said Jane. “They want us to increase our fundraising goal by twenty percent, but they won’t lead the effort. They won’t even ask their friends to come visit us! How do I make them take a leadership role?”

As it turned out, Jane had been fighting with the board for a long time trying to make them take a more active role in fundraising. The board was already involved in setting the fundraising goal and monitoring progress toward that goal, but beyond that, the board had very little to do with fundraising. Sure, a few board members helped with the annual auction, but that was the extent of it.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, this situation is all too common and many executive directors and development directors see working with the board on fundraising as the most challenging aspect of their jobs.

So, what do you do if you’ve already tried everything you can think of to get the board to take a role in fundraising? How can you make the Board of Trustees do their job?

The answer is very simple. You can’t make the board do anything.

Now before you violently hurl your computer out the office window, hear me out. While you can’t force your board to be great – and the chances of them spontaneously becoming every executive director’s dream team are pretty low – there are steps you can take to help them learn how to lead the fundraising effort. More importantly, you won’t have to manipulate, beg, plead or curse.

Step 1: Raise the White Flag

Yes, I am asking you to surrender. I am asking you to give up. Stop fighting. Accept the current reality and acknowledge that your board does not meet the textbook definition of the perfect fundraising board. Give yourself a break – and give yourself permission to stop fighting and to sit back and reflect.

I know this may sound a bit out there. But there is value in sitting back and simply opening your battle-weary mind to the possibilities. By giving yourself permission to stop fighting, you open the door to inspiration and creative ideas.

Step 2: Manage Expectations

There are countless experts still quoting the old maxim that requires trustees to give, get or get off. What are your expectations of your board? Do those expectations fit in with what you know about human nature? Are they realistic? Take a look at the blog post by Gail Perry to get a better understanding of What You Can Expect from Your Board – and What You Can’t.

Step 3: Redefine the Problem

Chances are good that you’ve been fighting this fight for a long time. So long, in fact, that it may be a bit difficult to actually put the problem in words. The key here is to craft a statement of the problem that allows for a solution. One way to get to the real definition is to challenge each statement of the problem by asking why.

In this case, the problem is that the board won’t take a leadership role in raising funds to support the organization. The question is, why? What is your explanation for that phenomenon? Does the board know what is expected? Do they believe those expectations to be reasonable? Do they know how to do what is expected of them? Are they afraid?

Step 4: Throw Out the Organization Chart

The typical organization chart shows a clear reporting structure that places the board of trustees at the top. The Executive Director reports to the Board of Trustees, and the Development Director reports to the Executive Director. Organization charts are lovely and logical, neat and tidy. For our purposes today, however, they are completely useless.

When it comes to fundraising, the organization chart needs to be turned on its head. While some Executive Directors consider themselves fundraisers, many do not. The Development Director is the professional fundraiser, and it is that individual who has the knowledge and expertise to help direct the fundraising campaign. It is thus critical that the Executive Director and Development Director have a good working relationship based on trust, appreciation and respect.

Step 5: Check it Out

Through each step of this process, it is important that you get a reality check. Are your expectations of the board realistic? Does the board see any problems that you missed? Do they think any of the problems you identified are overblown? Is everyone comfortable with their roles and responsibilities? Are you comfortable allowing your Development Director to lead? Is your Development Director comfortable taking on that role?

No one said it was going to be easy. But if you approach this issue with open and honest communication, and a willingness to redefine the situation so it suits your organization, you’ll be well on your way to building a truly great fundraising board.

As Principal of Joppa Communications, Erica Holthausen helps nonprofit organizations build a community of engaged and loyal supporters, enhance visibility, increase cause awareness and raise philanthropic support. A self-described idealist, she blogs about sustainability, nature, historic preservation, conservation, community supported agriculture and fisheries, good food and, of course, nonprofit organizations. She resides in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

12 Responses to “The Secret to Building a Great Fundraising Board”

  1. Great practical advice Erica! It\’s refreshing to hear concrete steps we can take ourselves–without trying to force anyone else to be something they are not.

  2. I think the word that is missing here, but the point you are trying to make is that one should embrace “flexibility.” One must be able to sway with different personalities. Every board is different. Early in my career I held expectations of what should be and used my training to try to shove organizations to reach goals. (This is an I know what is best, do what I say approach – Not always true and certainly rarely welcomed.) Whether you are dealing with fundraising, outreach, or any institutional planning, the best approach is a flexible one that allows you to gently steer your board, listening and guiding rather than fighting with them. Thanks for providing some thought provoking questions and gentle guiding words Erica.

  3. […] Secrets to building a great fundraising board | Pamela Grow's … […]

  4. Thank you, Melissa and Maureen, for your comments! Flexibility is definitely the key to any working relationship and is certainly important when working with a large group.

    “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.” ~ Bruce Lee (1940-1973)

  5. […] Secrets to building a great fundraising board | Pamela Grow's … […]

  6. […] post: Secrets to building a great fundraising board | Pamela Grow's … Comments […]

  7. Roger Carr says:

    You have provided some good, practical advice. But before totally giving up on the board members consider this:

    – I didn’t see anything in the article about educating board members. Many organizations assume that board members understand fundraising. This is not a good assumption.

    – If some requirement for fundraising is not in the “job description” for board members, that is part of the problem. You are expecting them to do something they do not believe is their responsibility. I would also argue these members are probably not passionate about the organization or cause if they are not willing to roll up their sleeves and do some work. Find ways to influence fundraising (direct or indirect) to be a requirement for board members. Also encourage PASSION to be a key selection criteria for new members.

  8. Hear, hear…I am in total agreement with Gayle and Roger. I spend much of my time each month working with staffs and boards on how to create a plan that allows for everyone’s strengths. And no one has to ask for money. Sometimes in our action planning we create a team of solicitors, but they SELF select.

    As for educating, shifting the focus from “getting the money” to “how does money bring joy in our organization” can be a very transformational conversation. I’ve seen scared, shy board and staff get excited to talk about how money brings joy and also share what the organization isn’t able to do because they have less of the financial resources than they need…and they don’t call themselves fundraisers…but they generate gifts, sometimes substantial gifts, for their amazing organizations.

  9. Sandy Rees says:

    I think it all starts with expectations and understanding. Board members need to know up front what staff expects them to do. Staff have to remember that most (if not all) Board members have little or no understanding, much less experience, with fundraising. The better we can support Board members and their desire to help, the more satisfied we will all be.

    Sandy Rees

  10. Steve Smith says:

    Lots of great follow-on comments to Erica’s piece. Transforming a board (a la Kay Sprinkel Grace) takes time and effort. I like to look for “urgency” points in a board agenda that stimulate conversation and then action. With the will of persistent leaders, the fundraising will happen.

  11. Pamela Grow says:

    Excellent points Steve. It isn’t just nonprofits – our nation as a whole has become addicted to the *quick fix* solution, when genuine results take time, action, persistence and know-how. If you only drop in a mention of fundraising to your board once a year, you can’t expect results.

  12. Wow! Thank you all for your incredible comments on my blog post!

    I could agree more about educating board members and making expectations clear from the start. Gail Perry wrote a great post about that very thing and I encourage you all to take a look! Also, I love Roger’s idea that passion be a part of the selection criteria for board recruitment.

    One very powerful way to look at fundraising is to stop talking about “making the ask.” Asking for money is frightening to a lot of people — for some people it brings back those memories of asking your parents if you can borrow their car! Instead of asking for money, fundraising is really about inviting people to participate — to experience the joy, struggles and (in some cases) sorrows that go along with mission-centered work.

    This may seem like a small paradigm shift, but it is quite powerful. As a fundraiser, you have the honor of inviting others to join you. At its very best, fundraising not only provides much-needed funds to the organization so it can do its work, but also engages the donor and makes him or her a part of the family — so they can experience the joy of making a difference and making the world a little better.

    We’ve all heard the saying “give until it hurts.” Years ago I was working on a capital campaign with a small organization. In one of our early meetings with the campaign committee, the chair spoke up. He had just made his pledge to the capital campaign and was thrilled that he was able to play a part in bringing the organization into its next chapter. He looked around the table, and encouraged everyone there to do what he did . . . “to give until it feels good.”