Recently, I ran into a few of “my” former board members from an organization I worked with years ago. This happens because I still love the theater I worked for and they’re also still involved. So when opening night comes around, I can often count on a few quick hugs.
Seeing them again – and realizing that I’ve known them for 30 years now – has me thinking about what it takes to develop the kind of board relationships that fundraising staff depend on.
We often hear about the problem board members. Those who will not help raise money, or who don’t even show up for meetings. Those with social or professional capital who refuse to spend any for the organization.
Let’s say this upfront: most board members are committed, interested and willing to help. But it’s the difficult ones that keep fundraisers up at night, grinding our teeth.
So how do you engage your board members?
Start inside. If you lead your development team – or are your development team – then you need to be involved with the board. You should be at meetings. You should be encouraged to develop strong board relationships. And your organization’s fundraising needs should be part of the conversation.
If you are not invited – or even prevented – from working directly with your board, take that as a danger sign.
If your board does not already have good governance procedures in place, you can help guide them.
To avoid problems later:
Prospective board members must know what will be expected of them. All of it. Don’t gloss over fundraising or other expectations. Help the governance committee of your board be clear.
Be sure your board has created terms. Term limits can be hugely useful if a board member needs to be gently released!
Choose board members because they are committed to your cause. Don’t allow wishful thinking about corporate or community connections to take the place of real interest in helping your mission. They don’t have to already be supporters, but they do have to be ready to become supporters.
Board members who are wooed with promises of “don’t worry, you won’t have to do much” will inevitably become board members who don’t do much. You don’t need them on the board.
Obviously, your board will have the final say. But you should develop the relationships now that allow you to share your professional expertise with them. Be a resource.
Engage your board as you engage your most important donors
Because, regardless of their giving, they are. These are the people who have signed on to be responsible for your organization. They are the public face of your organization. They are where your community and your organization overlap.
So meet with them. Listen well. Bring them in.
And here’s the thing. Just as with non-board donors, when you put the work in to develop those relationships, it pays off for your organization. But it also pays off for you. Those past board members I mentioned wouldn’t be happy to see me again if we hadn’t developed friendships.
Don’t think only about what they can do to help you. Help them. Maybe they’re a bit shy and haven’t met other board members. Or maybe you know a couple of board members have interests in common.
It’s important for people working together to see each other as people, not tools.
Make fundraising easy and rewarding
Of course, you’ll be concerned about board members and fundraising. Hopefully, they’ve been told they will be expected to help raise the money the organization needs to exist.
But some – or even many – may have no idea how to do that. And it can feel intimidating. Your job is to make it manageable.
How? Small steps rewarded all along the way with praise and recognition. Break everything down into bite-sized pieces.
You don’t want to send someone who is not prepared out to do a personal solicitation! But could they sign thank you notes? Could they help you review lists and offer information about donors that you don’t have?
Would they talk about their own financial commitment and share their story with the board? Or with your supporters in a newsletter?
Would they bring a friend to a small gathering?
Kim Klein has a list of ways your board can help fundraise.
To find the right first steps, you need to know your board. And at each step along the way, each board member needs to know you appreciate their help. Say thank you… a lot. Make sure their work is known to board and staff leadership, too.
Speaking of thank you
Never treat board giving as expected and unremarkable. Because you know them, your thanks should be much more personal. That basic acknowledgment? Not enough.
Call them to say thank you. Remind them what their gift is making possible. Let them know that you appreciate them – personally as well as professionally.
You may like you’re too low on the org chart to matter. But many board members welcome the chance to know staff. They can feel like they’re a bit on the outside. Being brought inside may be exactly what they want but won’t say.
When it just doesn’t work
Sometimes, despite your best, most intentional work, board members just don’t fit.
I knew one organization I worked for was in deep trouble when I had to force my way into a board meeting. And then when I was greeted with angry faces and crossed arms when I asked if each member of the small board would share with me why they joined.
Yes, seriously. These board members felt that sharing that information was far too personal.
In this case, governance had been nearly non-existent. Board members were recruited without any expectations or qualifications. Looking back, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that having the fundraiser there would be seen as threatening!
Make sure your board has good rules and expectations. Make sure there are procedures for bringing board members on. And for helping them make a graceful exit.
What if the board member is hurting the organization? Joan Garry has good information here about getting a toxic board member gone.
And turn to Simone Joyaux for a fantastic library of governance information. Visit and bookmark!
Good board members are often made not born. Help yours along the way. Then you will have the joy of working with a committed, enthusiastic group of supporters and ambassadors.