Board Giving: You keep using that term. I do not think it means what you think it means

publication date: Mar 22, 2021
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author/source: Ephraim Gopin

Board members have many responsibilities: Ensure the fiduciary health of an organization, plan for its short and long-term success, hire the right personnel, make the tough decisions.

And oh yeah, donate.

Poll nonprofit pros and you’ll find that the overwhelming consensus is that Board members must be donors. Leadership requires not just talking the talk but also walking the walk.

Now poll those same pros and ask them: What if Board members donated $1 but were valuable in other ways to the organization with their expertise, time and energy? How many pros would still be okay with that scenario?

Up until 15 months ago, I would have equated Board giving with donating a decent to large amount of money. A give-or-get policy was also ok.

But I’ve changed my mind and I believe you should too. Financial contributions- small or large- should not be a criterion for Board membership. If being a donor is part of becoming a Board member, then a $1 donation should suffice.

Only The Wealthy

When Board membership includes an automatic large donation, we limit who can be on our Boards. We are essentially saying that only people of means can join.

Because let’s be real: How many organizations do you know where Board members can donate $! and have the same voting rights as those donating $20,000? Hard to find.

As a sector we stifle diversity and inclusion on our Boards by making membership contingent on a large donation. (“Large” depends on the size of the organization.) We limit who can chart the course of our organizations based on the size of their bank accounts.

Does that sound even remotely fair?!

The fact is that Board members should not have to be some of the biggest donors an organization has in their database. There are plenty of other ways Board members can donate which have an equal or far greater value than a check.

Giving In Other Ways

Boards should encourage full membership from two groups of people who are often underrepresented around the decision-making table:

  1. Service recipients: Who better to help an organization plan its programming and activities that those who benefit from said programs! The disability community’s slogan of “nothing about us without us” is absolutely correct. We’re making decisions without necessarily getting input from the people who need it most. Giving beneficiaries a say could help organizations save money when deciding to start a new program which may not meet the needs of the community.
  2. Field experts: They are not necessarily people of means but they have the expertise, experience and knowledge to help your nonprofit become a thought leader in your mission area. Why is that important? You become a trusted name. Other organizations and funders see your operations as a model to replicate. Donors know your organization is providing the best services available for the community.

An organization working to find a cure for illness X: Having leading doctors, researchers and experts on your Board helps your nonprofit build a brand that people trust and follow.

A homeless shelter: The people using that shelter know best what services the local homeless population requires. They should be involved at the highest level.

Giving expertise, experience and knowledge is just as valuable- if not more so- than a check.

In the U.K. some organizations have begun to include service recipients on their Board and are seeing good results from doing so. This excellent article by NPO digital communications specialist Kirsty Marrins highlights some of these efforts.

The U.K. Model

I have had conversations with U.K. colleagues on the topic of Board giving and they are always surprised at the North American model. In the U.K., there is zero expectation that Board members will be givers!

Imagine that. It can be done.

During a Twitter conversation, Sarah Browning mentioned this:

Which made me ponder an issue which many in the sector have been discussing and writing about: Donor dominance. What happens when some of your largest donors are Board members and they’re deciding how “their” money should be spent?

I’m NOT calling out all Board members as being self-serving. I know the hard work they do. They are giving their free time, energy and effort for a cause they believe in. They are dedicated to furthering the mission. But as long as we equate Board giving with large donations, it is something to consider.

Even One Dollar

Everyone can be a giver. Everyone should be asked to participate in the joy of giving. Philanthropy should not be divided between those who have and those who don’t.

I am not calling for a revolution in how nonprofits choose Board members. But I would like them to begin thinking beyond a check. Because even someone who can only give $1 is worthy of being a decision maker.

We talk about inclusion in our sector. Here’s one way to begin putting actions to words.

Ephraim Gopin is the founder of 1832 Communications, an agency which helps your nonprofit build relationships and raise more money to help you service more people. 1832 partners with nonprofits to craft strategies which upgrade their online presence, boost their email marketing, improve their marketing collateral and strengthen their overall fundraising and marketing efforts. Ephraim is always happy to connect with nonprofit pros via Twitter, LinkedIn, his free daily nonprofit newsletter or his weekly podcast.

Cover photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash



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