Disappearing Fundraisers … Is Your Board at Risk?

Posted: August 16, 2017

Recently I did some reading that grabbed my attention with evidence of an escalating problem — and a shrinking trend — that impacts a nonprofit’s bottom line.

The 2016 Individual Donor Benchmark (IDB) Project, released in mid-July by partners Third Space Studio and BC/DC Ideas, surveyed 155 small nonprofits (budgets under $2 million). Among the questions: What percentage of your board members engaged in significant fundraising activities this year? 

The tally: 38% of small nonprofits report board members help raise donations from individuals, a drop from 40% in 2015. If the trend continues, where might it be now, in 2017?

Those numbers should concern every nonprofit, small or otherwise. If only a portion of your board members, with a presumed circle of associates and friends to engage, are actively seeking donations, consider what you’re missing in revenue.

Uncertain Fundraising Roles

The IDB study didn’t ask why more board members aren’t fundraising, but I have answers to propose from my experience as a consultant and a board member. To begin, governance is not a simple role within an organization. Done well, it takes up a chunk of a board’s focus, energy and hours.

Also a factor — and it can be a big one — is how well board members understand the full range of their responsibilities. In working with boards on orientation and education, I’ve found that new members often have a vague notion. Fundraising expectations can be floating or foggy, and in particular, the part about approaching donors and would-be donors to encourage, or outright ask, for gifts.

Clear Expectations

Expectation is actually the watchword here — the expectation that everyone within an organization has a role in fundraising; that building relationships which generate new and recurring donations are everybody’s business in a nonprofit. I’ve made this point before but it’s worth repeating. That expectation has to come from the top and be set by the executive director and board leadership.

Coordination is another key word. Not every personality on your board, or staff for that matter, is probably comfortable as a face-to-face fundraiser. Get more involvement by finding the best activity fit for each and all.

Consistency is critical as well and an organization promotes it — and helps board (and staff) members in engaging donors — with a compelling case for support. This is the short story of your organization: history, mission, key accomplishments, one or two priority goals you’re working toward and how gifts from donors will help reach those goals. It’s a 100-word introduction to the question, “What does your organization do?” and, filled with inspiring characters and results, it should move donors to give.

Grassroots Support 

Reading the stats in the IDB report sent me to my files for a 2016 article in Grassroots Fundraising Journal by Sheree Allison, executive director of a regional organization. Her focus is the development office revolving door, which can contribute to board members who don’t know about or can avoid fundraising duties. Allison also offers common-sense strategies, and here are three I recommend for orienting board members to their development roles.

  • Mission Moments: Give five minutes or so in every board meeting to a person or event that underscores the importance of your nonprofit’s mission. Those can be faces that board members recall when they approach donors to give.
  • Dream Saturday: Schedule an off-hours session for collective board “dreaming” about new goals to pursue or new ways to create or innovate to push your mission forward. No discussion of nonprofit nitty-gritty. This is for making grand, long-term plans and exciting your board about possibilities. Ownership of ideas can motivate many a reluctant fundraiser.
  • Board Member Check-in: Call it an annual check-up. A board chair meets with each member for a judgment-free — that’s essential — discussion of how the member feels about board service, as well as expectations that should include fundraising.

Dual (Not Dueling) Missions

Here’s one more truth for board members to grasp. Every organization has two vital missions: the services it offers and raising funds to continue or expand those services. These dual missions need to be acknowledged and understood as complementary, not competing. Supporting the service mission requires active commitment to the fundraising mission too.

Make that a board mindset and the potential to stop shrinking stats on board fundraising is sure to grow.

The article “To Have Ultimate Mission Impact, There Is Only One Solution” by Sheree Allison appeared in the November/December 2016 print issue of Grassroots Fundraising Journal ( Get more recommended resources by subscribing to my monthly Suggested by SJR roundup.