According to BoardSource, fundraising tops the list of board challenges, as it has since they first started collecting these data in 1994. In multiple studies, fundraising ranks first among board areas needing improvement.
According to data from an Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund report, “Daring to Lead,” three out of four executive directors describe vastly inadequate board member engagement in fundraising. But board members also recognize the shortfall: About one-quarter, 27 percent, of all board members were disappointed in their board’s efforts, particularly regarding fundraising.
The issue can lead to conflict in board-executive director relations. Many boards and board members simply look to the executive director to “make fundraising happen,” while executive directors feel they need better nonprofit board engagement in the fundraising process.
Governance and Fundraising
Every board should have fundraising goals they are striving to reach. Governance goals, that is. Governance is the strategic task of setting organizational goals, direction, limitations, and accountability frameworks. It is not management. Management is the allocation of resources and overseeing the day-to-day operations and is a responsibility of the executive director, not board members.
To realize the greatest efficiencies in fundraising, board members must understand how to set realistic financial goals, determine the overall revenue-generation direction, what the inherent limitations are, what other limitations they may want to implement, and how they will hold you, the executive director, accountable for meeting your financial goals.
Although you will be deciding the details of how funds are spent, your board will be involved in approving the budget. You need board members who understand their role in fundraising and are engaged in the process. Questions board members should be asking about fundraising in terms of governance include:
- Are we fulfilling our duties to provide resources to implement and grow our mission?
- Do we have a written strategic plan that we regularly review and update?
- Are we constantly promoting mission in all we do, even in our fundraising strategy?
- Have we provided a favorable environment for the executive director and staff to succeed in raising money? For example, do we have written board giving and gift acceptance policies in place that we enforce?
- Are we making progress in meeting our mission and financial goals?
Regular evaluation is how you answer them. Evaluation is also how board members determine whether their group dynamics are healthy or not. A key factor in how well your nonprofit meets its strategic goals is how well the board functions, particularly in relation to the executive director.
People want feedback. They want to be recognized for their contributions. And they need to be alerted when their behavior is disruptive, divisive, or inappropriate or when they are not abiding by their commitments.
It is the board chair’s job to make sure such conversations are held. And the board as a whole to enforce adherence to agreed-upon expectations. Your role, as executive director, under these circumstances is to support board members in any way you can and let board leaders take care of the issue.
The board as a whole also needs feedback. Best practices are they conduct an annual evaluation, so they are aware of how well they are functioning as a group. The standards can be set by the governance or executive committee. Board members can then use the feedback to improve performance and determine training needs. A quick internet search can uncover a multitude of resources to help boards conduct self-evaluations.
Teaching Them Their Role
It is board members who teach the community how to interact with the nonprofit they represent. They set the example. And they need training on how to do that. Don’t set your board members up to feel like failures—help them succeed.
Most of your board members probably think fundraising is all about the asking. They do not truly understand the basis of fundraising. Therefore, they shy away from fundraising and are not skilled in its art. The good news is that they don’t have to be.
Board members should not be expected to practice the art of fundraising. It’s not their job is to govern. So, don’t waste your time teaching them about fundraising. Instead, teach them about governance and how it relates to fundraising. For example, you may want to train board members in best practices in governance, understanding financial statements, strategic planning, legal responsibilities, and so forth. You may also want to hold specialized trainings for your committee and subcommittee chairs, for example, on how to facilitate a meeting.
Starting at the Beginning
Of course, good board functioning starts in the recruitment process. Make sure you have a good recruitment plan that works. And evaluate it along with everything else.
When you ask prospects to serve on the board, be clear about what is expected of them and what they’re getting into. And you shouldn’t do the ask. A member of the governance committee should. Have them do their homework so they can communicate:
- Why the board exists
- How the board defines success
- When the board is of most value to the organization
- How the board functions as a group
- What individual behaviors the board values
- What outcomes are tracked
- The legal requirements that govern board members, including the duties of care, loyalty, and obedience
- The nonprofit’s most significant risk
- How board members are protected from liability
- The nonprofit’s financial position
- The nature of the board-executive director relationship
- Lines of communication and decision-making
Board membership is an awesome responsibility. And board leadership is crucial to fundraising success. Make sure you and your board put in the time and effort necessary to recruit well.
Wrapping It Up
Have your board set fundraising goals in terms of their governance responsibilities. Then have board members evaluate both their individual performance as well as that of the whole board. Make sure they get feedback individually and corporately. Help them succeed in their roles. Teach them how to be good board members. And remember, it all starts with the recruitment process. Outline expectations from the beginning.
Buck the odds. Don’t be one of the many nonprofits where fundraising tops the list of board challenges.
Learn more about board relations, particularly in regard to fundraising, in my new book The ROI Mindset: How to Raise More Money with the Budget You Have. Get your copy today!