Balancing Intensity and expectations

Nonprofit Board Fundraising: Expectations and Intensity

I recently completed a board development training/retreat that helped an organization self-assess, reflect, and create a thoughtful board improvement framework. Part of the training included a discussion about the role of the nonprofit board in individual fundraising. If you do a simple Google search on board fundraising, you will read lots of finger-wagging sermonizing about how fundraising is a primary duty, responsibility, even a Biblical mandate for all board members. Pulling a random quote from a generic board training PowerPoint slide from a consulting group, we read,

“A critically important part of good board management is ensuring the availability of adequate funds. Nonprofit board members should actively support organization’s fundraising efforts. (Bold lettering theirs).”

As a longtime, serial board member who, for the last four plus years has been working as a nonprofit consultant, I would argue strongly that pointed admonitions delivered by Power Point slides are pretty useless beyond, cajoling board members for their donations and their begrudging participation in fundraising planning and/or events. In this article, I am interested in laying out a framework that might be useful for nonprofits and their boards to get past “fundraising performance angst” and actually create a thoughtful dialogue that leads to a shared agreement about what board fundraising should look like.

First, it is important to recognize that the board requirement of “ensuring the availability of adequate funds” does not automatically equal individual fundraising. Gasp! I said it. For many nonprofit organizations individual and/or event fundraising is the smallest and, in many cases, the most insignificant part of the agency’s revenue stream. In other words, if you are a board member of an organization that derives 80% or 90% of its revenues from government grants and contracts, ensuring adequate funding means resourcing grant writing, ensuring grant performance, maintaining government and political relationships, and advocating for public policy.  All of these activities can leave little time for fundraising in the traditional sense of the hosting events and appealing for individual gifts.

In this context, it is more useful to think about two dimensions related to individual fundraising. The first is the dimension of intensity (or priority). How important is raising individual donations for the organization? How intensely are such revenues pursued? Again, if individual donations and events make up 10% of your revenue, the priority and intensity of fundraising appeals and events may not be high. Note: elsewhere I have written about developing a revenue mix (here and here) that may or may not include a strategic focus on individual fundraising.

The second dimension to consider is what expectations do you set for board members related to fundraising. At one end of the spectrum a board member job description might be silent on fundraising or include a soft reference in that says something like “All board members are required to make a financial commitment annually to the agency. The contribution amount is currently not specified but should be a meaningful reflection of your means.” At the other end of the spectrum might be a board job description that states, “Board members will participate in fundraising to ensure that our organization has the resources it needs to meet our Mission. In addition to making a commit to that our organization will be one of the top three charities you support, it is also expected that you participate in 50% of our fundraising events annually.” Being clear about whether board expectations are low or high influence your board’s engagement in fundraising. You can’t have low written expectations in a job description and expect high engagement in fundraising.

Figure 1
Figure 1

So the process of defining individual fundraising for your board is to align these two dimensions. Mapping the dimensions in a two-by-two matrix (see Figure 1) can serve as the basis for developing a shared agreement about the board role in fundraising. A nonprofit organization that places little strategic priority on individual gifts and/or has no clear expectations of board is not equivalent to a nonprofit organization that raises the majority of its revenues from board engaged small events. Let’s explore each quadrant of this matrix and how expectations and intensity can serve to shape the thinking and acting of your board’s participation in individual fundraising and events.

Individual Engagement: When a nonprofit has low expectations of board members related to participating in individual fundraising and the organization also places a low priority and intensity in pursing such revenues, then the burden for individual giving defaults to each board member. If individual fundraising is not part of the collective board conversation and the board is comfortable staying in this box, the shape that intensity and expectation might take is in the form of an annual individual giving contract. In other words, ask board members to annually commit to giving (and hold them to it) and move on to other board functions.

Engagement Party: When the board is explicit that the collective expectation of board members is larger that writing a check then a board should organize and do something together. If the organization has a low intensity or priority for individual fundraising, and the board a higher expectation, then the board should take the initiative and organize a board-directed fundraising. It is in this box that the board owns their fundraising without placing an individual fundraising burden on agency staff. I have seen boards effectively coordinate annual appeals or house parties almost entirely independent of the paid staff.

Engagement Cycle: If the board sets low expectations for members but the agency has a higher intensity and priority given to individual fundraising, the board might develop an approach to calendar-based event planning. For example, if an agency plans four events a year, board members might only be expected to participate in one or two of those events. The board’s fundraising committee takes on a more ad hoc nature, disbanding and reassembling (with new members) for each event on the calendar.

Standing Engagement: It is only when individual fundraising expectations for board members is high and the organization is intense in its focus on individual donations, does the more traditional focused, ongoing, and proactive “standing fundraising committee” become imperative. In this box, there is intensity and engagement and the committee and agency staff are actively working to stay focused on the priority of raising individual donations.

The goal of this article is not to present hard and fast defined archetypes but to outline how board expectations and organizational intensity can serve as the basis for a deliberate conversation that helps answer such questions as:

• How important is individual giving to our nonprofit organization?
• What are the expectations for board members related to individual fundraising?
• What are our collective commitments to action related to fundraising?
• What is the best board committee structure (if any) to reach our goals?

Together answers to such questions will help your board create a shared understanding around the board’s role in individual fundraising. Once your board has this conversation, make some agreements, write the policy down and act upon it.

We have too many mythical “should” and “ought” statements in the nonprofit sector. Board participation in individual fundraising does not have to be a “should and ought ” approach.There are many tools to create a financially stable organization and, as with most nonprofit management themes, there is no one size fits all solution. I believe thoughtful and sometimes-hard conversations are a place of discovering your organizations unique voice on fundraising.

As always, your thoughts are welcome.


Photo Credit: Thomas Budach

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.