In small-medium non-profit organisations, board members have an opportunity to play a key role in lifting fundraising performance.
With more than 15 years’ experience as a professional fundraiser and fundraising consultant, Jeff Buchanan has worked with many non-profit boards. In this article, Jeff shares insights from the experience he has developed from interacting with so many board members.
I serve on two non-profit boards and I appreciate the challenges for board members in working through what they can do to help lift fundraising performance and achieve more success than failure. Here are four suggestions:
1. Most fundraising failures are from lack of commitment to fundamentals rather than lack of innovation or creativity.
From popular commentary, it seems many people subscribe to the idea that poor performance automatically flows from a lack of innovation or creativity. My many years of experience in working with many different kinds of clients on solving their fundraising problems puts me in a well-qualified position to disagree with this common viewpoint. It just doesn’t reflect the reality I have seen and worked through with clients time and time again. Organisations and people are tripping up on the fundamentals of good fundraising practice.
Many major gifts of thousands of dollars and regular appeal gifts of tens or hundreds of dollars are not being missed because of an innovation or creativity problem. These gifts are being missed because of poor execution on the fundamentals.
Having stated that, I will also say that I am a big fan of innovation and creativity, working with clients on projects where for example, innovation and creativity in fundraising communication are very important.
The closest thing I can parody this situation with would be how some might take action to fix a broken down car. Some innovation and creativity evangelists might suggest that, to get the car moving again, it needs to have a new shape and a new polish of the paintwork. The ‘fundamentals’ fans would suggest fixing the engine, putting four tyres on it and making sure the steering works. They will be happy to worry about the shape and paintwork too … but a bit later!
Another way of putting it: sometimes the answer does not lie in ‘thinking outside the box’ but rather ‘just making sure that the box works properly’.
As a board member, how are you contributing to a productive consideration of the fundamentals? Are you more inclined to call for greater creativity and innovation?
2. Major donors invariably want to engage at a senior level such as a CEO or a Board Member.
In big decisions, leadership matters. I have talked at length with many donors who are making decisions about making a large gift. It is very common that they want to engage with peers, senior executives and board members to build trust and express shared values.
It bewilders me that I still hear of and see board members and CEOs who think that sending the fundraiser on staff is enough.
It is not easy to find out what lies behind that kind of thinking. I have had quite a few occasions where the confession from the board members or CEOs was anything from “not enough time”, “I don’t know how”, “I don’t want to be involved if it fails”, “it’s not my job” and even the odd admission that is some version of “I am just being lazy”.
I encourage any board member to make time to read the excellent research published by the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Non-profit Studies in 2011. It clearly highlights how much major donors are yearning to engage at the most senior levels about shared values, trust, outcomes, impact, budget information and so on.
Fear of failure and lack of experience are real, but they need not be an issue that totally prevents involvement by board members. It is understandable that people will fear being the one who might need to make the ‘ask’, but consider at a minimum:
- how board members could be involved in developing a good quality relationship that leads up that decision
- how board members can also contribute to knowledge about some prospects and donors that could be very helpful for the development of good relations at senior levels.
3. Measure the dollars AND the effort/activity that produces the dollars.
The fundraising results (i.e. How much money did we raise? What were our expenses? What is the return on investment) are the easy thing to measure. For board members, there is an important opportunity to move beyond this one-dimensional measure and consider the effort and activity that leads to those results.
In the same vein of the famous quote “what gets measured gets managed”, board members have an ideal opportunity to set the parameters for what gets measured for fundraising effort and activity. It is absolutely possible to measure aspects like:
- the frequency of contact,
- the quality of contact,
- the involvement of key staff and volunteers,
- the progress of relationships,
- the movements in discussions,
- the donor interest levels in various projects, and so on.
If the dollars being counted are not high enough, then the next steps in determining what to do about it are going to be more productive, supposing that the analysis and conversation can turn to these other aspects.
4. If fundraising is not listed in your CEO’s KPIs, then it won’t happen.
The reality of the busyness of day to day work means that some things will not get done. To make sure fundraising is attended to as a high priority, the board must ensure that KPIs for dollars raised and the effort and activity that drive the results are set at the very top, for the CEO.
As a board member, I can testify first-hand how pleasing and productive it is to see the detail about the effort and activity that generate the fundraising results. The non-profit sector suffers significantly from a high turnover of fundraising staff. One of the major reasons this continues is the shallow snap judgements that are made about fundraising performance without due consideration to what lies beneath. Sometimes, board members are definitely more at fault with poor results than others who are trying their best with very limited resources and indifferent support.
It is always good to seize any opportunity to talk with other non-profit board members of an organisation where fundraising is working well and ask what kinds of expectation they are setting at board level to measure results, effort and activity.
AskRIGHT can train and help Board Members embracing their fundraising role.