Many nonprofits struggle with board member engagement. Board members are often busy people with a lot going on in their lives outside of the boardroom. However, they’ve made commitments to your mission, and getting them engaged should be a priority for your organization.
Fundraising is a particularly common pain point when it comes to board member involvement.
Nonprofits generally expect members to play direct roles in fundraising, especially during major initiatives like capital campaigns. Their involvement can be extremely beneficial when made an integral part of your organization’s culture. Even though board members might not be in the weeds managing their own prospect portfolios or drafting email blasts, they’ll still contribute to a spirit of top-down engagement, help drive fundraising results, and open wider networks of community connections and partners.
If you’ve struggled with (or are currently facing) the challenge of getting board members involved with fundraising, there are best practices that can help. Let’s review a few proven tips for engaging your board and empowering them to drive a greater fundraising impact than ever before.
1. Learn more about their skills and interests.
You likely survey your nonprofit’s volunteers to screen for special interests and skills. This brings two key benefits: showing them that you value their experiences and contributions as individuals and uncovering new ways they can help push your mission forward. Do the same with your board members!
Whether you’re starting a new board engagement initiative from square one or onboarding a new member, survey them or have a one-on-one discussion about their philanthropic interests and professional skills. Common skillsets that can benefit your organization include these fields:
- Legal expertise
- Financial management, budgeting, and investing
- Public speaking
- Event planning
- HR and business management
- Client and public relations
How could these skills be leveraged to support your nonprofit’s operations in new ways? Could board members share their skills with staff by hosting basic training sessions?
But go even further: What are the interests and experiences that drew your board members to your mission in the first place? Perhaps a passion for animal welfare, firsthand experience receiving life-changing health services, or deep generational ties to your community—whatever the reasons, keep them in mind and use them to tailor board members’ roles and responsibilities when possible.
2. Leverage their connections.
Networks of personal and professional connections are part of the value board members can bring to their organizations. Even if your board is generally unfamiliar or unengaged with fundraising, an introduction to a prospective donor, funder, or sponsor is a very easy ask.
If you’re conducting a major campaign, conduct an exercise in which board members brainstorm their personal contacts who may make qualified prospects. Refine this list through further prospect research, and then have the board member who knows each individual take the first steps in building or strengthening their relationship with your organization. This personal touch can make a big difference in the prospect’s experience and create a smoother runway for discussing the campaign, conveying its case for support, and later making an ask.
3. Provide training and support.
Sometimes, reluctance to get involved in fundraising stems from unfamiliarity or discomfort. You should actively train your board members so that they have the knowledge and confidence to play more forward-facing roles.
This training and support might take many forms, including:
- Sessions hosted by senior development staff to explain the prospecting and donor qualification processes at your organization
- Books, webinars, and other resources about donor stewardship best practices
- Solicitation exercises conducted by fundraising coaches or senior staff
- On-the-ground shadowing days to experience different aspects of your operations firsthand
However you provide support, make sure to reinforce it actively. Don’t simply give board members a book on donor relations, ask them to read it, and then never follow up on it again. Create opportunities and regular times to ask about what they’re learning, answer questions, and discuss topics as a group, perhaps by extending one board meeting each month.
4. Ask them to contribute directly.
Perhaps the easiest way to get board members involved in your organization’s fundraising is by asking them to donate to your campaigns. For major campaigns and most nonprofits, it’s generally expected that board members will contribute directly. While this doesn’t involve them playing active fundraising roles, it does still have a big impact on your organization.
For board giving to meet expectations and run smoothly, you should provide your board with structure rather than just a vague or general request with no specific details. Forming a smaller group of board members to run a loose campaign-within-a-campaign can be a helpful approach. The process you follow might look like this:
- Recruit a board giving committee.
- Set individual giving targets for each board member based on what you can estimate about their giving capacity.
- Combine the individual giving targets into an overall board giving goal.
- Introduce your board giving initiative during a group meeting, explain its importance for the campaign, and answer questions.
- Hold one-on-one discussion and solicitation meetings with each member.
- Follow up as needed, track progress, and then celebrate reaching your goal as a team.
Board giving can be an awkward subject, especially when it involves each member being solicited by leadership in isolation. An approach like the one outlined above can help because it allows the board to determine amounts and manage the process internally as a team.
5. Expand, diversify, and/or restructure your board.
Sometimes shaking things up can give your board the fresh air it needs to look at fundraising in new ways. Making a few structural changes can help lay a stronger foundation for a culture of engagement and enthusiasm. This could entail taking several different steps, such as:
- Expand your board. Bringing fresh, excited faces onboard can energize your team and remind them why they’ve chosen to commit to your mission.
- Diversify your board. Growing your board with diversity in mind can also reinvigorate its culture and attitudes toward fundraising. Think of diversity in terms of both background and perspective. Ideally, your board should represent the full scope of your operations and the community you serve.
- Restructure your board. Make fundraising involvement a more concrete expectation of board service by creating a fundraising committee led by a Development Chair. Board members who are already passionate about fundraising or new recruits with direct fundraising experience can make strong candidates for this role.
An organization’s board should be dynamic—without periodic changes, it’s understandable that board members without direct lines of sight into day-to-day operations could fall into “business as usual” attitudes when it comes to fundraising. This is why many organizations struggle to obtain full board buy-in for major campaigns during and after their planning studies. But by making a few targeted adjustments and clearly explaining why, you can encourage everyone to think about their involvement from a fresh perspective.
Fundraising is among the critical tasks your nonprofit must do to further its mission, so as leaders of your organization, board members should be involved in one form or another.
If you’re struggling to energize your board or build a culture of engagement, these tips can help encourage members to rethink and understand the importance of fundraising, their roles within your organization, and how the two intersect. Working with board development experts can be an excellent way to implement strategies like these, all backed up by professional best practices and experience from the field.
About the Author
Aaron Dahlstrom is the Vice President of Digital Marketing at Graham-Pelton. Creative and considerate, Aaron plans and executes Graham-Pelton’s presence across all digital mediums, ensuring that those who invest their time engaging with the firm experience the timely thought leadership and bold approach audiences have come to appreciate.