Encouraging fundraising-savvy boards

publication date: Jan 15, 2014
author/source: Cynthia J. Armour

I often sense frustration from both sides on the topic of the board’s role in fund development. It’s a favourite subject of mine, so presenting at AFP’s Toronto Congress last November was no exception.Cynthia Armour photo

Board and staff alike frequently have completely different perspectives of roles and responsibilities when it comes to effective fundraising. This misunderstanding usually arises from wishful thinking or more specifically, lack of communication.

If you’re a board member you already know that balancing work, family and volunteer time can be delicate. You joined the board because you care deeply about the cause. Time is precious, so if the task isn’t clear, pleasant or supported, it’s very easy to procrastinate. Besides, isn’t that why we’re paying a fundraiser?

As staff in a charity, you may have a different understanding. You’ve learnt that well-connected board members who are willing to open doors and ask their friends and colleagues for support are what you need to succeed.

Clarity trumps unexpressed expectations

The clearer the charity can be about the level of involvement you require the better – prior to any board or volunteer recruitment.  If expectations were downplayed for fear you’d scare away suitable candidates, no wonder people feel confused and frustrated. Chances are you recruited the wrong individuals in the first place.

It’s almost impossible to engage board members in fund development if the subject wasn’t broached right from the start. For those who haven’t pursued fundraising as a profession, the thought of asking anyone, particularly those closest to them, for money evokes reactions akin to tooth extractions without novocaine or public speaking in the buff! What those people have yet to discover is that making the pitch is a very small part of the whole development process. It’s up to the chief staff person, board chair and a fundraiser (if you have one) to clarify where everyone fits, within their individual comfort zones.  

Effective fund development is a team effort

The most important point is that board and staff must work together in order to get the best results. Adopting a “culture of philanthropy” means everyone involved in the organization understands how they can help initiate and foster the relationships that support your charity’s mission. Achieving that lofty goal requires a systematic, clearly communicated strategy with all actions being grounded in that philosophy. Everyone understands the big picture and their role in it.

The financial goal is dependent on the budget, which stems from the strategic plan. Senior leadership make these informed decisions together. In a small charity the top staff person and board are the key players. A larger organization would delegate some of the work to the chief executive and managers, making recommendations for board approval. Regardless of the process, when any of these components are disconnected, or worse, do not exist, it’s no wonder there are misunderstandings and false expectations.

Capitalize on people’s strengths and aptitudes

Most of us want to make a difference – it’s often what motivated a career or volunteering in this sector. We bring certain strengths to the table and yet most charities don’t invite staff and volunteers to share their knowledge and explore areas where they’d like to increase their skills. Given the opportunity, people often see training as a benefit of involvement. With growing online availability and the expertise that’s often already in the room, providing opportunities for learning need not be expensive. It’s more about the commitment to share the wisdom than it is about the cost.

Reduce your staff and volunteers’ fears of fundraising and increase their overall understanding. Break down the components so people can assess where they see themselves. For instance, the gardeners cultivate and nurture the relationships, the sleuth makes a good prospect researcher, the storytellers help write the case for support, the public speaker presents the case to service clubs, the negotiators prefer making the major gift ask. Identify people's strengths, experiences, and what they need in the way of training and support to help the team raise funds together. It's an exciting and rewarding adventure when everyone knows and plays their part.

Provide the tools to succeed

If the general perception is that fundraising means reluctantly begging from friends and family, then there’s little hope. Once you’ve taken stock of people’s strengths, you may discover the ideal ally or champion has been quietly waiting in the wings. If not, you may need to recruit one or two people who have the skills and will model the behaviour your team needs. Scheduling 15 minutes at the beginning of each board meeting for sharing knowledge supports new roles and responsibilities.

The goal is to strengthen the team’s ability to raise funds – but the players need to be involved. After clarifying the skills needed, invite their input. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Many board members have served elsewhere. What did they learn that is transferable (without stepping into confidential territory)? What are the top five tips the staff discovered while attending the latest conference? Who would be a strong guest speaker to share their volunteer experience as a major gift canvasser?

What tools would make the entire process flow more smoothly? Board members need to be able to share a compelling and succinct story – and all sing from the same songbook. Keep it brief and simple so it’s easy to remember. Provide a Frequently Asked Questions page with all the answers. Create a canvasser report form. Ask what else they would find helpful?

 Celebrate together

Staff, volunteers and donors are all part of your charity because they believe in the cause and the people it serves. A culture of philanthropy is inclusive and the benefit of this approach is the shared understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When people know what’s expected, have input in the process and receive training and support, the entire organization advances. That’s a great reason to celebrate!

Cynthia Armour (CFRE) is a specialist in governance, fundraising and marketing. Over the past 23 years she has helped board members and chief executives from grassroots to national charities take a team approach to their community outreach. Visit her website at www.elderstone.ca.

Contact Cynthia directly by email  or 705-799-0636 for a copy of her 2-page form "Board Fundraising Roles - Where Do You See Yourself?" 

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