Through The Eye Of The Needle

Post by James V. Toscano

Through the Eye of the Needle

Legions of nonprofit board members think of involvement in fundraising as an unnatural act, while development officers think of it as getting the camel through the eye of the needle.

Hundreds of articles on boards and fundraising have been published in the last few years. Many admonish board members to do what they’re legally supposed to do. More helpful articles try teaching board members that they can help and lead in development efforts. Some of these pieces suggest steps to train board members. Here’s my compilation and thoughts on this most vexing and potentially productive process.

The Ideal

Fundraising happens in many ways in nonprofit organizations. Best of all is a culture that is characterized by the following:

• A strong, knowledgeable executive who relishes going out and asking;

• An organizational culture that emphasizes that fund-raising is everyone’s job;

• A set of development positions sufficient to manage the fund-raising process;

• A diverse funding base with an array of major donors giving for the right reasons and committed to the organization’s mission.

• A strong brand and active marketing to build and hold a growing constituency base.

• Active board participation and leadership in reinforcement of mission, financial support, and energetic cultivation and solicitation of prospects and donors.

Clearly, variations on the fund-raising ideal have emerged that are characterized by one or more of the above. This can range from a staff responsibility model, now the method that many large universities use, to active board leadership. The combinations and permutations of how funds are raised are truly remarkable. Yet, board involvement always adds value, and can be the difference between success and failure.

Today, boards have numerous functions beyond fundraising. The new IRS 990’s give a revealing and sobering picture of what is expected of nonprofits and, thus, their boards.

A Vastly Different Situation Today

In my first nonprofit position years ago, there were far fewer nonprofit organizations, and their boards drew members largely from a traditional constituency of financial supporters, businessmen, professionals and “old wealth.” Today the situation is vastly different.

Minnesota, for example, in 1960, had less than 1,000 nonprofits. Today, we are closing in on 5000. In 1960, there were approximately 10,000 or less board members, assuming multiple Board memberships. Today, the number is probably more than 40,000 unique individuals drawn from a much more diverse population. Just think of the number in California or New York!

This diversity adds strength. It also has liabilities, especially in development when board members have been recruited for a variety of good reasons unrelated to knowledge of or experience in fundraising.

How do we develop a culture and a system to maximize the fund-raising potential of a board, and use this system in the selection of future board members to improve it?

Two tasks, in the board recruitment and orientation process, are vital.

1. Job descriptions for this ultimate volunteer experience that clearly spell out expectations in terms of commitment of time, energy and resources.

2. Commitment to development in its broadest definition: the overall task of building constituency for the organization through trust, integrity, accountability, efficient and effective programs, outstanding outcomes, positive public opinion, outstanding reputation AND recruitment and solicitation of volunteers, friends, admirers, supporters, donors and investors.

Starting from Scratch

With the wider range of board members not experienced in fundraising, we are often at ground zero in what needs to be done. Training and patient transformation are the answer, once motivation, job description and commitment to the organization’s overall development are in place.

Ultimately, the goal is to grow a board culture of involvement that becomes part of the Board’s DNA.

Board recruitment always needs to assess the prospective member’s abilities, experience and potential. Orientation must reinforce the opportunity and responsibility to participate in fundraising. A process of transformative stages may be implemented; with some new Board members going initially from self-involvement to wider participation. While these stages are often sequential, some board members may only reach a middle stage by the time of their departure from the board.

The Five Stages

Five different levels of involvement describe the recommended process.

1. Personal Involvement. Starting with an annual gift and support of special events, with the Board Chair and/or the Development Committee Chair in the lead, the new Board member is oriented and inured to expectations and practices of the nonprofit.

2. Identification of Peers and Others. Who else in the member’s circle may be interested in the organization’s mission? Recruiting volunteers and inviting friends, colleagues, associates, and neighbors to activities and events are natural next steps.

At this second level of involvement, going from the personal to the “other,” the member might be asked to sign thank you notes to donors or to send and write personal notes on invitations. They may be asked to bring prospects to a “point of entry” event or host a house party or similar event. Talking about the successes of the organization in other forums, informing opinion leaders or writing letters to the editor might also be part of this next “organizational ambassador” stage.

3. Specific Learning. Specific training in fundraising follows successful performance in the first two. Not all, maybe not even a majority of board members, might reach this stage, although success and satisfaction in the first two stages will help maximize the number of those who move up. Attendance at fundraising training at local institutions, reading fund-raising blogs, joining social networks on development and other media sources, and attending Board training sessions will reinforce this learning orientation and commitment.

4. Active Participation. At this stage, members are invited to join the development committee, help write or review the case statement and development plan, identify prospects and open doors to them, attend foundation site visits, sign and send personal appeal letters, call and thank donors, and participate in donor recognition events.

5. Asking. Having participated successfully in all other activities, the board member is ready for the fifth stage, the Asking phase. Major personal commitment at this point precedes asking others. Besides a major gift, it might include a lead gift, or an endowment, capital and/or planned gift. Membership on the development committee might result in leadership of a fund campaign or event, initiating and making fund-raising calls, helping other board members to achieve comfort with this stage and generally contributing to acceptance of this important role in board culture..

The Time is Now

Clearly, each organization is different, so board cultures will be different. After good recruitment and patient development using these stages, some or many of the elements will become part of the organization’s life.

The time is now. With so many forces working to restrict resources in our current environment, nonprofit organizations need to maximize all organizational elements to assure its ability to successfully continue achievement of mission.

Boards need to be a significant part of that effort and, hopefully, use of these stages as a guide and tool might, in some small way, help to make the difference.

Copyright 2011, The Good Counsel, division of Toscano Advisors, LLC. May be duplicated with citation.

  1. Laura Lewis Says: October 3, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    Well put!

  2. […] So is the recognition of the role as donor as well as prospect identifier and gift solicitor. Historically, in an era of reciprocity, board members understood this. They no longer necessarily do, so a written job description used in the recruiting process based on the desired traditional virtues might come in handy, given they are easily understood. If anything, the mnemonics stress the overwhelming importance of this characteristic. Board members must participate in development at some level. (See my essay, Through the Eye of the Needle.) […]

  3. […] Fresh: Fundraising. Each board member makes a contribution, opens doors to other prospective donors and helps in soliciting contributions. This is clearly the most controversial, although it is essential and needs to be explicitly covered in job descriptions and recruitment before election to the board. (See my previous article.) […]

  4. […] Having written on ways to get Board members to step up and do something, if not everything, in the development process, I have long wrestled with establishing some kind of best practice that optimizes board performance. My most recent article about that is here. […]

  5. […] efforts to achieve consensus about  goals and roles among Board, executives and the DD. (see Eye of the Needle and How Many Board Members Does it Take to Change a […]

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