I interviewed Hal Abrams, a major gift consultant, about how to involve board members in fundraising. He said the first step is to engage them in the mission.
Tell me about what you do.
Many organizations live hand to mouth off their gala or just one big push. As a major gift consultant, I try to help nonprofits be more efficient with their time and change their processes to build relationships with donors and to help donors accomplish their philanthropic goals.
What role do board members have in fundraising?
Board members have an important role in fundraising. But I think one of the failings of many organizations is that they select board members based on who has the ability to give and fail to involve them with the delivery of the mission. These individuals join the board. They go to board meetings. Then 60 or 70% of what happens at board meetings are reports — from the governance committee, the finance committee, the audit committee, the investment committee. This is all about governance, not the mission. I know of people who were brought onto boards because of their ability to give or get. Not surprisingly, they also had great ideas. But they were not invited to share those ideas. Instead, at board meetings, they would be asked to approve things without being part of the discussion. Sadly, I have seen many of these same board members leave the board and be less engaged after they left than when they started.
This is because board members choose to join a board because they believe in the mission. I believe if you are going to involve board members in fundraising, then you need to earnestly commit to involving them in the mission. You need to engage them in the mission. If you are successful, the natural next step for board members is to want to do all they can to help the organization have greater reach, greater impact. They will be excited and proud to be an ambassador for the organization and for the mission. They will want to share what is going on in the organization. They will want to make introductions. They will want to ask for or give money.
Many boards are bringing on board members with lived experience around their mission. This helps them make better decisions. But these individuals do not necessarily have a lot of money or access to people with a lot of money.
I recognize that some board members do not have a lot of resources or access to people with resources. But every board member can still help further the mission. Let me give an example. One organization I represent focuses on homelessness. A person on their board – who did not have the means to give – recognized that a partnership with other organizations was going to be most effective. The partnership focused on building more shelters that had intake and job training at them. Different organizations focused on different aspects of the project.
This board member identified a project and a partnership. The program staff found organizations to partner with. The fundraising staff identified a potential donor who cared about the cause and who wanted to leverage their gift to support both organizations. Ultimately, it started with an idea from someone who did not have the means to give. This led to identifying a project and a partnership and funding from people with means.
So, the role of board members can come in three different ways — it can be this knowledge of solutions, either because of lived experience or because of professional experience as in educators at a school; it could be giving money themselves; or it could be having access to people with money.
What do you think about development committees?
In my experience, maybe 20% of board members truly enjoy being part of the fundraising process. These individuals are energized. They open up their networks. These people join the development committee and help with fundraising strategy and implementation. But that does not mean organizations should let the rest of the board off the hook. Everyone has networks. If board members committed to both identifying contacts with interest in the mission and are willing to help introduce their contacts to the nonprofit, they will be greatly enhancing the fundraising goals.
Do you have other stories about when board members have been able to raise money either by coming up with a good idea that was attractive to donors, or by actually going out and asking for money?
At the community college where I worked, we had a board member who had a lot of connections in the business community. He hosted gatherings at his home to talk about an entrepreneurship program the college had. At the events, we asked attendees what advice they would give to budding entrepreneurs. It was a comfortable setting and we found it was easy to get folks to share. We had some great conversations.
Over several events, the board member connected the college to several dozen new individuals. We did ask attendees to get involved – we had a list – we needed mentors, we needed judges for an upcoming competition. We did not ask for money at the event, but many of those who attended became involved and later donated. The events also led to some real connections for students that helped with their career paths. And ultimately, it energized the board member, who several years later gave a very substantial gift to the college.
Do you have an example that is outside of the education space?
I represent an arts organization, a homeless organization, and others. In all of these organizations, we are discussing how we can involve folks in credible ways. We are intentionally not asking for money but looking for ways to get them engaged. For the arts organization, we are sharing about youth education opportunities, bringing art to underrepresented areas in the city, asking for input on how to get people to embrace art. We expect our outreach will lead to a whole new crop of people being involved and becoming donors.
Do you have an example of a strategy that was unsuccessful and what lessons did you learn from that?
When I first had board members host events at their homes, we did not identify the goals of the event. We called them conversations. But they were not really conversations. They were really presentations, show and tell. We were not successful. We did not increase the engagement of board members or create new donors or volunteers. The lesson learned is that you need to offer credible ways to engage the individuals at these events hosted by board members. You have to truly embrace these events as opportunities to share ideas in both directions.
Do you have other thoughts that you would want to share?
If you find ways for board members to be involved with the mission, then it becomes natural for them to embrace being ambassadors, to proudly represent their organization. Note that it is critical that you help them be comfortable sharing the vision of the organization. You need to ensure they have the knowledge and the language to hold that short conversation or make the elevator speech. It is a modest first step to talk about the mission. All board members can do this. Then some subset will want to take the next step and delve deeper to ask for gifts. And you can also connect them to philanthropists who care about the mission if they do not have those connections themselves.
Finally, if you can find authentic ways to ask for input from or otherwise engage other individuals, you will be on your way to turn them into donors.