Is Fundraising a Dirty Word?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 21st, 2014 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Board fundraising is an opportunity, not an imposition that we dump on others .  That’s the lesson I’ve been trying forever to get board members to accept.  I’ve explained countless times that fundraising isn’t about asking people for money, but about cultivating and stewarding relationships.   My limited success with this has led me to ask:  should we be talking about fundraising at all?

When I ask a group of board members and wanna-be board members why a nonprofit needs a board, answers range from a fiduciary responsibility to setting direction to oversight of money.  If I wait long enough and keep coaxing eventually—and I do mean eventually—someone will, quite reluctantly, say fundraising.  And most in the audience do that nervous laugh.  When I ask a group of executive directors the same question, the very first thing that comes out of their mouths is fundraising.

There is a strong message here that board members mention fundraising last and executive directors first.  Given that far too often, contrary to best practices, it is the executive director who does all or most of the board recruiting, potential board members are likely to be hearing a lot more about the responsibility to bring in money than most want to hear(and, truthfully, should hear at the very beginning of the recruitment process.)  But I completely understand from whence the executive directors are coming.

But I’m suggesting we drop the whole talk of fundraising.  We’ve tried for decades to shove it down their throats, desperately trying to get that square peg into the round hole.  And while progress has been made, the truth is that the progress is small if not, in fact, immeasurable.  So, maybe we need a new approach?

By the time I talk to board members about their fundraising responsibilities, I’ve already gotten them comfortable with the basics—without their even knowing we’ve talked about fundraising.  Get them comfortable with the entry point; get them to understand the importance—yay, even the urgency–of the gateway to fundraising and you’ve won them over, never having mentioned the dirty word itself.

And just what is that gateway?  It is being an ambassador.  When I talk about a board member’s individual responsibility to be an ambassador, no one gets nervous, people’s body language doesn’t suddenly close in on themselves, no one leaves the room.  Rather, heads start nodding – they get it.

When I ask the size of their organization’s marketing budget, every one laughs, secretly wondering if I know anything at all about nonprofits.   But then they start to connect:  no marketing budget, 12-14 board members, each of whom has a voice and an ever expanding network, and they start to get it—the importance and value of their being good ambassadors for their organizations.  (Secretly, I also want them to be good ambassadors for the sector as a whole, not to convey the importance, value and goodness of just “their” nonprofit, but the sector as a whole.  Board source estimates that there are 20 million nonprofit board members.  What an army of ambassadors!)  Equipped with the common elements of the organization’s brand message that each should incorporate in opening remarks, a suggestion as simple as including his/her board leadership position when asked “What do you do?” and the assurance that if someone then asks a question about the nonprofit s/he is not imposing, but offering them an opportunity to learn about this fantastic organization, board members are quite willing to be an ambassador.   Once doing it, so many find out they actually enjoy it!

Subsequently, when I let them in on the “secret” that being an ambassador is part of the process of fundraising (but I refer to as bringing money into the organization), there is a feeling of relief:  it isn’t as terrifying as I thought, they say.  Like so many myths that surround the nonprofit sector, people have it wrong about fundraising.  We don’t go around with our hands and hats constantly out begging for money.  We truly are selective, taking the time to get to know who to ask and who not to, who is interested in what, who can afford how much, etc.  We don’t ask a friend who is a horrible writer to edit a paper anymore than we ask a friend who is a terrible baker to make dessert.  We take the time to get to know our friends, their strengths and weaknesses, interests and dislikes; after we know them, we ask for favors that play to their strengths, we invite them to do things that connect to their interests.  So it is with our donors, who are nothing other than our organization’s friends.  Before we ask anything of our donor, we must first make them friends of the organization.

Maybe it is time to drop the fundraising term with board members and talk to them instead about their responsibility to help build loyal friendships between people and an organization’s mission.






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