The Board doesn’t understand fundraising

The Board doesn’t understand fundraising

One of the most significant ongoing challenges faced by fundraising practitioners is the common and important complaint that “The board doesn’t understand fundraising” …or something similar. Sometimes it is also expressed as “I had to move on to another job because the CEO/board doesn’t get it like I do”. Sound familiar?

Research conducted by the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Non-profit Studies (ACPNS) at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and published in April 2013 was titled “Who’s asking for what? Fundraising and leadership in Australian nonprofits”. This excellent work lays this issue wide open in its various forms. The results showed that the disparity between the views of organisational leadership and fundraisers was largest on issues such as:

  • The extent to which fundraising is a profession
  • How well boards understand fundraising
  • The need for fundraising experience on a board
  • The influence a board has on staff turnover
  • Donor satisfaction with organisational performance
  • Resourcing of fundraising


We make a lot of excuses around the ‘disconnect’ between fundraisers and organisational leadership and while I understand the validity of some of these, I am also convinced that it won’t get any better unless we work on fixing it. The progression of fundraising toward being a true profession depends on it – and therefore depends on the smarts that fundraisers can bring to this issue. There is a huge opportunity here for fundraisers to find more productive ways to educate non-profit board members about these issues.


Apart from the obvious need to develop better board education and having your board read the executive summary of the above-mentioned report, I have two other suggestions that I hope you will consider:


Firstly, I suggest that we find ways to bring donors of all kinds as close as possible to board members and board meetings. I know some are already doing it. You will need to find donors who can articulate their thoughts well about why they give and can explain the value of the process that you are embracing to engage them and ultimately lead them to happily give to the work of your organisation. I have seen major donors speak to boards and these have been watershed moments. I know that some organisations have generous board members who are donors and really do ‘get it’, but you are in the minority. Interestingly, the ACPNS research also makes it abundantly clear that donors, particularly major donors, want more board and CEO engagement!

Secondly, I have heard it said many times that fundraising is a mixture of science and art. I believe we need to ease up on the ‘art’ side of this and put more effort into explaining the ‘science’. Board members, CEOs and CFOs are looking for meaningful numbers and rational explanations that will instil more confidence in fundraising. Good fundraising practice is much more systematic and scientific than most people realise …. but we don’t explain that anywhere near well enough in my view. I am not belittling art or creativity at all – I value art and creativity … but … the ACPNS research makes it abundantly clear that individuals in executive and governance roles are craving more tangible data and less abstract concepts to make it easier for them to make decisions. Using artistic and creative models to communicate this can be a tough way to achieve the same clarity for everyone.


The high rate of churn observed as fundraisers move far too frequently from one job to the next remains a big problem. It is remarkable when you think that some individuals might spend 20 years or more in fundraising and end up working for more than 10 different organisations in fundraising roles. Unfortunately, I don’t see this changing anytime soon because there are various problems at both ends of this process. People deciding to move on from dysfunctional circumstances is one thing, however, it is not overly difficult in some fundraising roles to get a new job because there is a shortage. The barriers to moving between jobs are low in many cases – so people who can brush up a CV and interview well can often move again and again and again, with everybody involved experiencing the same pointless cycle over again. Sometimes the problem is the fundraiser, sometimes the problem is the organisation looking to hire a new fundraiser.

Personal accountability 

Developing a shared understanding on good fundraising practice with organisational leadership is just one part of the equation. Another is our personal conduct as fundraisers and in my view there are some things that we need to take on personally to lift the tone, such as:

The way we talk about what we do. The words we use matter more than we realise at times. When we refer to donors or prospects as ‘targets’ we are not putting our best foot forward. It is a terrible word to use in that context when you stop and think about it. Using it in this way should be banned. Make that a policy at your organisation stating today.

Secondly, when someone asks you – how did you get into fundraising, we need to make sure that we do not say, “Well it was by accident really…” I can understand that some of us have used this response to be modest or nobly play ourselves down a bit … but let me reassure you that is doesn’t help us with other professionals who we work with or who could be our donors! Can you imagine what is going through the mind of a highly qualified surgeon, barrister, corporate leader and so on who has worked and studied for years to get to the top of their profession when they hear that from someone like us who could be involved in raising millions of dollars in some cases. We may as well say “I practice voodoo and sprinkle fairy dust and the magic just happens after that”!

Thirdly, when we talk about fundraising results we are going to have to find more assertive ways to also talk about the costs. The spin doctoring of results that happens from time to time has to stop and full transparency must be the standard. We need to prepare more thoughtful answers about costs and push back when asked the loaded question that implies that all fundraising shouldn’t cost a cent. We all need to better inform ourselves with information about the true cost of fundraising and the simple truth that different types of fundraising activities have different costs (or different returns on investment if I was to frame it more positively).

Fourthly, the way that different activities are ‘labelled’ by some of us in an effort to be progressive or trendy risks making our profession look haphazard to our supporters. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the term crowdfunding misused in recent times. Fundraising activities that in any other year would be characterised as ‘a successful online appeal with an excellent e-mail campaign’ are now labelled as ‘innovative crowdfunding’ as though there is something magical about using the term crowdfunding. I feel fairy dust about to be sprinkled again. We must take much more care about the way we label things. New labels and trendy phrases don’t automatically make us more professional.

My fifth and final point is about ensuring that we place a high value on fundamentals. I become disillusioned from time to time when I hear other people (and this includes fundraisers, CEOs and board members) express a keen desire for greater creativity and innovation in fundraising. There’s nothing wrong with creativity and innovation but in many cases, this is really just code for, “Keep trying anything you can think of in the hope that you might magically raise lots of money”. This does us no credit as a profession. I put it to you all that most of the time it is the fundamentals that deliver great results. Go and look closely at why big fundraising campaigns succeed and you will find strong fundamentals. So instead of trying to always come up with ideas that are ‘outside the box’, we will do much better if we put plenty of effort in just making sure that the box is working well!

Working smarter 

Great fundraising practitioners are people who have a knack for asking great questions. If you can ask great questions when talking with prospects and donors, you can achieve very deep engagement with them. I encourage any fundraiser to think about the questions you ask and plan ahead for good donor and prospect engagement.

Internally at your organisation, I also believe that it is important to ask one type of question more than any other. For many things that you see others doing in fundraising, I encourage you to ask more ‘why’ questions instead of ‘what’ or ‘how’ questions. We frequently ask ‘what’ or ‘how’, but you will learn more by also asking ‘why’.

For example, one might ask, “What happens when we prepare this direct mail campaign?” or “What do I do when I visit that major gift prospect?” These are good questions but you will learn more if you changed those questions to “Why do we develop the direct mail package that way?” or “Why are we approaching the development of our relationship with that prospect in this way?”

You will learn much more by asking why than by asking what or how, even though all are valuable.


AskRIGHT Fundraising Consultants have experience working with board members to improve the fundraising of their non-profit organisation via strategic consulting or fundraising training. To find out how we can help your organisation, contact or call 1300 758 812 (AU) /  0274 929 636 (NZ).


Jeff Buchanan

Jeff Buchanan

Senior Fundraising Consultant at AskRIGHT
Jeff has 15 years experience as a professional fundraiser and consultant, achieving considerable success for several organisations, and recognised by his peers for national awards.

To find out how Jeff can help your organisation, contact
Jeff Buchanan

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