Getting Enthused About Fundraising: What Nonprofits and Board Members Need to Know

It’s a scenario I’ve seen time and time again as a consultant to nonprofit organizations: board members are told to come to their next meeting with the names of 10 people who can be asked to make a gift to the organization. They nod in agreement, but their expressions tell me that this is something they don’t want to do. Sure enough, a month later, the board members return without the names.

I can explain why this happens: people have a fear of asking for money. In my experience, nonprofit board members are far more likely to describe fundraising as “begging” than to say they enjoy it. Their hesitancy to ask for money makes them uncomfortable in their fundraising role. This makes them less successful than they must be in order for the organization to have the necessary resources to operate and fulfill its mission.

The economic downturn has only added to these anxieties about fundraising. Board members, who may be worried about finances themselves, may be reluctant to ask someone else to support the organization for fear the person might not have the funds available to give.

Nonprofits are also struggling to recruit new board members, which can further hamper their fundraising efforts later on. In uncertain times, people are often hesitant to make new commitments. Prospective board members, like many other people, may be piecing together two or three part-time positions or working longer hours to keep their full-time jobs. With less free time, they may be concerned about whether they’ll be able to fulfill the duties of a board member.

The challenge to recruit board members and their hesitancy to ask people for financial support has a direct impact on the ability of nonprofit organizations to fund their operations. Many nonprofits are overly dependent on grants or events as a revenue source. But weathering the ups and downs of the economy calls for a more diversified portfolio. It requires gifts from individuals as well as board members who are willing partners in facilitating these gifts.

As a result, it’s more important than ever for nonprofits to pursue strategies to strengthen board engagement and involvement. It’s equally important to understand the psychological and societal barriers to asking for money. Only then will nonprofit organizations and their board members be fully prepared to achieve their fundraising goals.

Understand Money Matters

Nonprofits should start by looking at why board members are hesitant to take on a fundraising role. For many people, fear of fundraising has its roots in childhood. From a young age, we’re socialized to believe that money is private. We don’t talk about it, and we certainly don’t ask other people to give it to us. We’re told that money doesn’t grow on trees and that we should save money, not give it away. The messages communicated to us, both spoken and unspoken, are strong and lasting. It’s understandable, therefore, that board members feel uncomfortable about fundraising. They hold a deeply ingrained belief that it’s inappropriate to talk about or ask for money.

These perceptions about money need to be acknowledged early with board members. The time to begin is during the recruitment process. Nonprofits should interview prospective board members about their attitudes toward money and asking for money. They should also provide a written job description explaining that board members are expected to make a gift that’s meaningful to them, in an amount that’s meaningful to them. Taking these steps lessens the likelihood that board members will be surprised when they’re asked to participate in fundraising.

Similar conversations with current board members are also necessary. A retreat setting is a good place for individual and group meetings about issues related to money. Giving board members an opportunity to share their societal and family messages about money allows nonprofits to better understand and address their specific concerns.

Having these conversations impacts board member satisfaction. Remember that board members are in many ways like any other volunteers. They need to feel comfortable in their role and be willing to continue to fulfill it successfully.

Most of all, nonprofits need to remind board members why they ask people for money: it enables individuals to invest in the work of an organization and accomplish something extraordinary that they could not do themselves. Rather than equating fundraising with begging—a dynamic that pits the powerful against the powerless and produces discomfort on both sides—board members should realize that they’re creating a mutually satisfying relationship.

Find the Right Roles

There is, however, more to fundraising than asking for money. Nonprofit organizations often view fundraising as a two-step process of identifying a potential donor and then asking for a gift. But fundraising can also be seen as a more holistic process—one of development—that includes five key steps rather than two: identification, cultivation, education, solicitation, and appreciation. Looking at fundraising in this way allows board members who are hesitant about fundraising to engage in it without asking for money. It also leaves room for nonprofit organizations to recruit a diversified board, including those whose capacity to contribute extends beyond their financial means.

Board members can help nonprofits find potential partners whose values and interests are aligned with those of the organization. They can assist in cultivating a relationship between these individuals and the nonprofit, and in educating people about its activities. This could involve meeting someone for coffee, serving on a special events committee, adding a personal message to a fundraising appeal or writing a thank you note to a donor. Board members who are comfortable asking for a gift can, of course, participate in the solicitation stage.

Looking at the responsibility as development rather than fundraising allows board members to take on tasks that will bring them satisfaction and success. It enables everyone who supports the nonprofit—including board members hesitant about fundraising—to participate in ensuring the nonprofit’s capacity to thrive.

Provide Opportunities for Engagement

The work of a board can be somewhat removed from the daily work of the organization. Yet engaging board members with a nonprofit’s programs and services will help them become more informed, motivated, and effective fundraisers.

Nonprofit leaders can choose from a number of strategies to increase board members’ engagement. Plan a board action day to directly involve them in activities with clients. Encourage board members to invite the executive director to speak about the organization at a community group meeting, or to make a presentation themselves. Or ask clients to write letters to the board that describe how they have benefited from the organization’s work.

Board members need to hear the stories that bring a nonprofit’s work to life. Be sure they know how the organization’s services and programs impact an individual’s well-being or enable people to do extraordinary things. Ask staff and volunteers to make short presentations at board meetings that tell the powerful stories behind an organization’s facts and figures. These are the stories that board members can later share with prospective donors.

Also prepare board members for the moment when they will ask someone for money. Fear of rejection often accompanies hesitancy about fundraising. Board members must realize that “no” is not personal. Rather than rejecting the person or organization asking for a gift, the prospective donor may not yet know enough about the nonprofit to be ready to contribute or has already allocated this year’s charitable funds elsewhere.

What matters most in this situation is to remain gracious and respectful. When someone declines to make a gift, board members can encourage a continued connection by asking whether the person would like to receive the organization’s newsletter, annual report or event invitation. Increased involvement may lead to a gift in the future, transforming “no” to “yes.”

When board members are engaged, motivated, and aware of their feelings about money and rejection, they have a more positive board experience and a greater impact. As I’ve observed in my work with nonprofit organizations, board members who understand their fundraising role, and are comfortable in it, are also more capable of raising money. That’s another outcome of engagement—when people realize they can make a difference in the lives of others, they often become amazingly generous.

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