Sink or Swim

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 21st, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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I have been saying it for years:  don’t throw them into the deep end without first teaching them to swim.  It is true of both children (that’s a joke) and nonprofit board members.  Don’t ask and pressure them to fundraise until you have taught them how.  Makes perfect senses, but it is amazing how frequently this doesn’t happen.
swimming training

I don’t know the drowning statistics, but I do now have fundraising statisticsCygnus Applied Research conducted a survey of donors that included almost 3,500 current or recently-resigned board members.  Of these past and present board members, 46% came from organizations with professional fundraiser(s) on staff, while the remaining board members’ organizations had no paid fundraising staff.

Sadly, when it comes to teaching board members to fundraise, there is little difference between organizations with professional fundraising staff and those without.   In both groups, more than half of the organizations provided little fundraising guidance.  (You might forgive the organization lacking in fundraising staff for this failure, due perhaps to a lack of personnel or inside experience, but what is the excuse for a staffed organization?)

Why is something that seems absolutely like a no brainer apparently so hard for so many organizations to understand?  You can’t ask people to do what is for so many one of the most uncomfortable things imaginable without providing them any training, insights, guidance, the basic do’s and don’ts.  The state doesn’t tell children turning 16 (and increasingly 18),  “Okay, get behind the wheel of a car and drive!”  We don’t hire new employees and say, “Okay, go operate this unfamiliar piece of equipment,” and then walk away and leave them on their own.  Why, then, would we do that with board members and their job as fundraisers?

Perhaps the most surprising finding is how few organizations in either category require board members to make a personal gift to the organization:  only 52% of organizations with staff and a paltry 27% of those without staff.  Depositing a check does not require fundraising staff, so what is the deal here?

Over the last 10 years, as more and more funders have been asking, “What portion of your board gives?” I cannot help but wonder under what rocks the fundraising staff and executive directors (as they tend to know what is the “right” or best practice) of the remaining 48% and 73%, respectively, have been hiding?  Without the expectation of a personal gift, it is no wonder that only 47% of organizations with fundraising staff and 29% of those without require board members actually to participate in fundraising.  Yet the fact that only 55% of the staffed organizations and 42% of the unstaffed organizations require board members to “attend special functions such as fund-raising or donor-recognition events” defies rational thinking.

Clearly “require” doesn’t mean require, but merely “suggest” or “we hope you will.”  And the lack of support offered by these “requiring” organizations underlies that statement.  Almost 60% of the board members surveyed said there was no orientation for new board members.  How, then, is a new board member supposed to learn about the organization, its mission, its programs?  How, then, is a new board member supposed to learn about the general responsibilities of being a board member and the particular ways they translate to that particular organization?  When, as we far too often see, an organization assumes board members know what the job of board member entails, they get board members either doing nothing or doing the wrong thing:  teach nothing, you get nothing in return.  Not surprising, 94% of the organizations in both categories had no budget for professional development for board members!  No money, no training.

I’d like this to be a call to arms and not a “misery loves company” refrain:  “See, we are just like the majority of our peers!”  In this economy, and going forward, individual giving must play a key part in an organization’s diversified revenue strategy.  In all organizations, regardless of the existence or not of a staffed development function, board members must play a significant role in securing those individual dollars.  Something so vital to the sustainability of an organization should not rest on crossed fingers and wishful thinking; rather, it should be built upon a comprehensive and on-going program of education and support.

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