Just Don’t Make Me Fundraise!

by Eleanor Shakin and Marissa Lewis

Ever heard this from a board member?


Most board members respond enthusiastically to the requirements of board membership. They become engrossed in the programs, carefully review the financials, and take the time needed to deliberate with colleagues on program and policy.

But many simply dread being asked to raise funds. This is largely because we are raised to avoid the topic of talking about personal wealth.  How many of us talk about how much money we make over a family dinner?  We are taught that how much money someone has is considered personal information and is socially inappropriate to discuss.  So board members naturally feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of asking people for money.

Since fundraising is a core responsibility of nonprofit boards, it’s well worth the effort to turn this around.

There are many ways to fundraise

Start by improving the understanding of fundraising’s critical role in the organization and the many ways a board member can participate.

A recent study of 16 nonprofits that had breakthrough success in individual giving commissioned by the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund indicated that there are four large themes each of these organizations had in common:

1.     Fundraising is core to the organization’s identity

2.     Fundraising is distributed broadly across staff, board and volunteers (culture of philanthropy)

3.     Fundraising succeeds because of authentic relationships with donors

4.     Fundraising is characterized by persistence, discipline and intentionality

Fundraising is actually a cycle of activities.  Most fundraising actually takes place before or after you request the gift.  The cycle begins with identifying donor prospects, building relationships with them, engaging donors, asking for a gift, expressing gratitude and recognizing donors.  Board members can and should plug into all of these phases, not just the asking phase.  For those who are uncomfortable, they might start at the back end – start by thanking donors who recently gave.  It can be surprising and delightful to receive a personal call from a board member expressing gratitude for their support – and this delight is infectious –  it will spread to the board member who makes the call as well.

Shift your mindset

Then work on the fundamental mindset shift needed for fundraising.. Don’t dwell on money – lead with your passion for the cause, the purpose of the organization, and the possibilities for the future.  Start from your own “why” you give story.

Board members are generally passionate about the work of the organization. Once they find their own language to communicate their enthusiasm, their confidence will increase.   So don’t script them – let them speak from the heart.  Take some time to help them practice this language – role playing can be a useful technique.

Encourage them to share their passion.  Make sure they feel free (and are equipped) to share their enthusiasm in a multitude of ways – in person at events, by mail (with personal notes on the annual appeal), online (through sharing social media posts), and just by sharing it in casual conversations – at dinner parties, at the gym, at work, etc.

It’s about networking

Encourage board members to begin thinking about how broad their own networks are.  Most of us know people through our neighborhood, our childrens’ school, our work, the gym, our faith community, and many other networks. 

Ensure that your board understands that by sharing names with you, they are not promising to immediately ask them for money.  You will support your board member as they work their contacts into the cultivation process. Introduce them thoughtfully to the work of the organization and encourage their increased involvement gradually so it feels natural and authentic – not socially inappropriate.

Whether planning for a small gathering, a major gala, or a one-to one major donor meeting, the responsibility is shared by staff and board.  Prepare authentic experiences for the donor, and every experience will deepen the donor’s relationship with the organization. In the process board members can become enthusiastic, knowledgeable and successful ambassadors for the organization.

Not every board member will find her or his voice over night. Some will never become enthusiastic solicitors. But with practice, even a reluctant fundraiser can achieve success, and an inspired fundraiser will achieve great results.

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