Your Board of Directors: Fundraising Asset or Liability?

In February, 2009, as the implications of the recession for fundraising were starting to become apparent, my firm reached out to over 20,000 donors to ask them how the economy was affecting their philanthropy. Within a fairly bleak picture overall, they offered some hope. 43% of respondents said they would still give …if asked by someone they knew personally or a leadership volunteer.

In good times or bad, Board members bring something to fundraising that no paid practitioner, no matter how capable or experienced, can replicate — influence. Without the active engagement of leadership volunteers, professional fundraisers are forced to raise money without their greatest asset. But when the Board accepts its responsibility for fundraising and engages with confidence, there is no limit to the fundraising success that a not-for-profit can achieve.

Statistically, Boards of Directors are nowhere near where they should be when it comes to fundraising. In our just-published 2011 Cygnus Donor Survey, over 4200 active or recently active Board members were asked for their views on the role of leadership volunteers in fundraising. While 82% admitted they were responsible for raising money, they rated their Boards’ and their own performance as lackluster.

59% of members surveyed said their Boards have difficulty finding people willing to raise money. But at least a partial solution is within reach if some basic Board functions are improved. 30% of Boards represented in our survey don’t even have a Nominating Committee; and among those who do, more than half are not active year-round. Most Nominating Committees tend to convene one or two months before the AGM, leaving them grasping for any warm body in order to fill the slate rather than taking their time to find the best possible candidates for the job. This is a completely fixable problem and being on the Nominating Committee is a gem of a job. The Board as a whole, however, is the body that must establish clear directions for this Committee concerning the skills they are looking for in new members and the results they expect them to achieve.

On the issue of results, here is where Boards fared the worst in our study. Only 18% evaluate their performance in fundraising, exposing leadership volunteers’ earlier admission that they are responsible for raising money as a fairly toothless declaration. Absent of any obligation to assess their performance, Boards are not challenged to adopt ambitious goals and then reach them. This extends even to personal giving, it seems. Only 38% of board members surveyed said there is a requirement for them to make philanthropic gifts to their own organizations (at any gift level); a mere 6% set any kind of minimum contribution amount.

For my professional colleagues who have read this far and are now reaching for the hemlock, there is some hopeful news. 77% of Board members said they would benefit from learning about and/or practicing things that would make them more effective fundraising volunteers.

c. 2011 Cygnus Donor Survey

According to donors, your leadership volunteers are a not-for-profit’s most treasured asset. They can turn a “no” into a “yes”; they can convince someone who is not open to supporting new causes to make a gift anyway; and they can inspire a level of generosity beyond what donors think is possible. But they have to get in the game. Every minute you invest as a professional fundraiser or a CEO in helping your Board turn their admission of responsibility for raising money into concrete action, will be time very profitably spent.

Editor’s Note:

1. Click here to purchase the full 2011 Cygnus Donor Survey Report, containing the results of 33 questions on Board Members and Fundraising as well as other practical information for fundraisers on how donors plan to give this year.

2. The Donor-Centered Board is a Cygnus program designed specifically for Boards of Directors, available in webinar or in-person format, adaptable for presentation in regularly scheduled board meetings or retreats. (PDF download)

Showing 2 comments
  • Amy Eisenstein

    Great information, Penelope. It’s great to have data supporting what we believe we know. In my work with boards, I have found that they are willing to help with fundraising if they are given small, manageable, specific tasks to do.

  • Terry Stoupa

    Penelope: I also love the data you compile for your views. Though I have had reasonable fund-raising success from a board I reported to in the past several years, my most recent non-profit board experience while seeking a new position (with four board chairs or founders)was less than inspiring. While looking for a new assignment, I encountered a Board Chair who suggested I raise funds for a commission (his recently departed Dir. of Development was a CFRE and President of the local AFP chapter), a Board Founder who significantly misrepresented a hiring position at a national franchise non-profit, and a Board search committee and senior Board member who did not mention to me that their Program Manager had admitted to police of his rape of a 12-year old two months earlier (the info. had not been released publicly, yet). I am not sure that fund-raising is the most serious deficiency some Boards are facing. I’ll take lack of fund-raising over lack of ethics any day.

Leave a Comment