Effective Fundraising: Staff Does Heavy Lifting

This is my third in a series of posts about the role of the board in fundraising. In this post, a board member describes their role as Fund Development Committee chair. They also broadly address how board members can be involved in fund development and the necessity of having staff do the heavy lifting.

In my last post, a board member explains the importance and impact of connecting an organization’s values to their fundraising plan. In the previous post, a board member outlines ways donors can contribute to a successful capital campaign.

Board Members Play Different Roles in Different Size Organizations

As told by a Board Member Somewhere in the US

I have been on many boards — one that was scrappy and largely volunteer run, one that was a membership organization, and others that were middle-sized nonprofits – not huge institutions. 

The role of the board around fundraising varies for the type of organization. For example, the small organization was a startup, with only two paid staff. But they had a huge volunteer base. And at that stage of the organization’s evolution, we were more of a roll-up-your-sleeves kind of board because that’s what the organization needed. I was literally writing grant proposals and sending out thank you letters — doing the kind of work usually done by paid development staff.

In the membership organization, we helped open doors, but the board did not really play an active role in fundraising because the flow of revenue did not require us to. The members paid dues. And some members also supplemented the work through grants.

Where a FD Chair Can Contribute

For this story, I want to focus on one organization that was in the middle. It had a budget of a few million dollars per year. It was more mature and had dedicated development staff as well as the infrastructure to support a staff-driven approach to fundraising. It had multiple sources of revenue and a variety of funding strategies.  I was chair of the fund development committee and my perspective was that paid staff would be primarily responsible for carrying out the work with board members supplementing the effort. I had some specific areas where I believed I could contribute the most.

Strategic Advisor: First, as chair of the committee and as a board member, I thought of my role as a strategic advisor focused on the fund development plan. I wanted to provide thoughtful input to shape the plan. What are the goals? Who are we trying to reach? Who do we need to reach? And then at a tactical level, asking: what are we actually doing day to day, month to month, over the year to engage and retain our current donors and to grow our donor base? Like any board member, I focused on asking questions, making sure the plan was complete, pushing on different strategies, and giving feedback.

Ambassador to the Board: Another important role as chair of the fund development committee is being the ambassador for fundraising with the board itself. I saw myself as the person who encouraged other board members to give and to participate in fund development in other ways. I was also responsible for giving progress reports at board meetings.

Door Opener: All board members have a role as door openers, opening up their Rolodex to make connections. I knew some of the donors personally. Others, I knew something about even if I did not know them personally. So, I could give input about specific donor strategies and also make introductions to the people I did know.

All Board Members Should Help with FD

I think all board members should play a role when and where they can in opening doors and making asks. I know most people feel more comfortable making connections than asking. But I think it is reasonable and appropriate for board members to get involved in direct fund raising in a variety of ways. For example, that can be done by committing to fill a table at the luncheon or breakfast and inviting their friends. Or it might be by hosting a house party. It could be by joining the fund development staff or CEO for a donor meeting.

Be Intentional and Explicit with Board and Staff

Every board should be intentional about who they bring onto the board and what balance they want: people with deep pockets or access to deep pockets and people from the community. Then be very clear when you recruit about what you expect so you won’t be disappointed. Tell prospective board members what you want them to do: attend the annual event and fill a table, make a significantly personal contribution, identify three people to invite to a house party.  Also be clear about what support they will get: we will give you sample scripts, emails, and an invitation. And if someone cannot commit to everything — they might say, “Hey I am 22 years old and my friends just don’t have that kind of money.” — then be clear about what you might expect instead, such as thanking donors.

Community-based board members bring different kinds of assets to the organization than a rolodex for fundraising purposes. That is okay as long as you are conscious going into it. And you can have these board members contribute to fundraising in other ways. For example, with one organization, we would have a morning or two after the annual event where board members could come in for half an hour signing letters to thank people. Or board members could get a list of thank you phone calls to make from home. People were willing to do this. It was nice for people who did not have robust connections. Making those opportunities easy, even something you could do from home, was important.

Staff Needs to Help Board Members

If you decide you want some or all of your board involved in fundraising, then you have to help them. Lots of people don’t often feel sufficiently equipped to make an ask, open doors, or invite people to events. Usually they cannot tell a crisp story about who are we, what do we do, why it matters, what the impact is. Here the fund development staff plays an important role, coaching board members, clarifying their role in an ask they make with a staff person, helping them get invitations out the door. As an example, at one nonprofit, we had a fundraising event each year. We did a good job getting board members to invite people. Staff provided lots of help. They had sample emails for board members to use. It was effective.

No matter how good your board members are or how proactive and willing they are to engage in fund development work, it is hard to go as far as you need if you don’t have capable, self-motivated staff. Because at the end of the day, if you want a good appeal letter, it needs to be written by staff. And if you need to ensure activities get done in a timely way, you can’t have a volunteer board member be on the hook. I have been in frustrating situations as a board member where we did a lot of planning in the committee, but nothing happened. Staff did not see providing support to the board as their role. Board members were not in a position to do the work without staff. At the end of the day, someone has to follow through on the actions that have been identified and be responsible for the sustained stewardship — this is really hard to delegate to a board member.

Lessons Learned

I think the meta point is giving people a variety of ways to support the organization and fundraising but in the end, you need good staff to be successful.

Make it easy: Give board members a script or a sample letter.

Be accountable: Hold board members accountable for what they say they will do.

Be explicit: Be very explicit when recruiting board members about expectations.


  1. Anne E Garrett, CFRE

    Janet – I am enjoying this series. I appreciate how practical, relevant, and accurate your advice is. Thank you!

  2. This is excellent background; thanks for sharing your wisdom and expertise!

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