Working with dozens of nonprofits, you begin to realize that there are two things that plague most nonprofit organizations: the board and the database. We have written elsewhere in Philanthropy Daily about having a good database. Here I want to provide some thoughts on board engagement.
First of all, take heart: most nonprofits have boards that are inactive at best, and disruptive at worst. Your out-of-touch board members are not unique to you, so don’t fancy yourself unusually unfortunate.
Second, bear in mind that for most fundraisers, board engagement is above their paygrade. Though board members should be donors, they fall onto the “caseload” (so to speak) of the president or board chair. Again, take heart: you probably already feel the weight of the world on your shoulders as a fundraiser; don’t assume the weight of board engagement, too—at least not alone.
Consoled, then, by those two realities, here are some tips to increase board engagement:
Stop asking for introductions to friends. Yes, the ideal board member would approach you and say, “I have a few friends who may be interested in supporting us. Would you join us for a lunch meeting and share about our work?” That’s unlikely, and it is equally unlikely that they will respond to your blanket request for names.
Instead, do research on your board members. Find some people with whom they may be acquainted and ask them, “Do you know this person? Would you be willing to set up a meeting?” Of course, this should be standard practice for foundations work, too: share a foundation’s board with your board members and ask if they know any of them.
Failing that, set up meetings with your board members individually. Pitch them first—remember, they aren’t in the trenches with you. While they should know what you’re doing, they aren’t as acquainted with the mission or as up-to-date as you. After warming them with a pitch, ask for a set number of names: “Do you have three friends who might be interested in supporting this mission?” Keep in mind that your board members are busy with other things. An email out of the blue is likely to fly under the radar, but a direct request while discussing the mission is a warmer opportunity to generate active engagement. It sets a concrete, delimited goal—three to five names—as opposed to an open-ended request.
Do a planned-giving pitch. If you don’t have a planned-giving society yet, get one started. Boards are a good place to start, and they will be glad to see the organization’s growth—and your initiative—into new areas of fundraising. If you do have a legacy society, remind your board frequently. At least once a year at a board meeting, provide your board with collateral on the society. Update them on members, premiums, and gifts already received—and the impact of those gifts. Have a board member currently in the legacy society help with the pitch. (If none have yet included you in their estate plans, speak with your president or chairman about trying to secure one through one-on-one, in-person meetings.)
Legacy givers will come from your most loyal donors, who may not in fact be your biggest donors. This is likely to be your board. They are investing in your organization in non-financial ways, and legacy giving—while it culminates in a gift—signals non-financial support. It signals a deep and long-term commitment to the vision, a desire to advance your work long beyond the giver’s time in this world.
Implement a board giving minimum—and remind members about it. This is the most obvious piece of advice, and it is harder to hold to than it sounds. Nevertheless, set and promulgate a give-get minimum (i.e., a required amount that a board member must contribute or secure from other donors). Once set and promulgated, continue to remind members about this expectation while also expressing your desire to help them meet it.
Just as with planned giving, the give-get requirement should be announced frequently. Indeed, at every board meeting, the financial review should include an update on board giving expectations. Remind your board that this should be your most stable stream of revenue. Don’t be sycophantic, but remember to be especially grateful for board members who go over the minimum expectations.
If board members are neglecting this requirement, ask your president or chair to meet with them individually. Discuss the requirement, the importance of board support, and inquire about their reasons for not meeting the requirement. Exceptions may be made, but not without cause. If and when necessary, lean on another board member to help with this conversation: other board members are better positioned to remind their peers that a failure to meet a reasonable give-get goal signals that it may be time to remove oneself from one’s board service.
It is also good to remind board members that, for good or ill, many foundations like to see 100% board giving. Help your board members understand that their support is crucial for generating other support. Remind them—delicately—that it is a strange endeavor to invite others generously to support the mission when those closest to the organization are not fully committed themselves.
Again, boards are a thorn in the side of most nonprofit professionals. Do not lament and do not waste time on your board. However, setting up some basic practices to engage your board can help generate their support and bring them deeper into the life of your organization—without too much time and energy on your end.