Board Fundraising Success: Do You Pick Their Pockets or Their Minds?

Image of a meeting

Machinery clunks to a halt between floors. Two strangers are stuck. No phone. No answer but echoes to their cries for help. Scary, right? Except they’re on an escalator.

That image (and YouTube video) is how Lewis R. Flax, president of Flax Associates consulting firm in Washington, DC, summed up the issue of nonprofits struggling with board fundraising. “Most problems are easy to solve,” he said. “Just get off the escalator.”

Flax gave tips for getting unstuck at “Board Engagement for Fundraising Success,” a program in December at Foundation Center in Washington, DC.  Roughly 60 percent of board chairs say fundraising is their greatest weakness, he said. But overcoming that weakness is possible with the right techniques for board engagement, recruitment and cultivation.

Here are some of the pointers Flax gave on creating an engaged and effective board:

What is board engagement, and why is it important for fundraising?

Too often, there’s a mismatch between board members who want to make a difference and staff who want to limit board involvement so they can get things done. “What are we asking board members? Can we pick the pockets of your friends, colleagues, the parents whose kids go to your school?” Flax said. “That may sound harsh, but that’s the reality. How can we shift that? How can they become engaged?”

Staff has to take the lead in making board members feel valued, he said. They need transparent, honest dialogue about expectations before someone joins the board. And they need to put board members in a position where they’re adding value. That means opening discussion on a strategic level where staff welcomes feedback, even if that means starting with something small.

“Most boards are either trending up or trending down,” Flax said. “Your board is going to trend up the more engaged they are.”

Should the executive director make the “ask” for money from the board?

In response to this question, Flax flashed a stop sign. “There’s a hint,” he said. “Subtle, I know.”

The appeal for money is more genuine and authentic when the most influential and committed board members ask their peers to contribute. The executive director’s role is to help board members craft their thoughts into a personal story, so their passion and conviction shine through.

“When a board member is making the ask, should they get involved in all the specifics of how the organization works?” Flax asked. “No. Board members hear about that all the time, so we want to appeal to emotion. That’s the reason the board member joined—they care about the mission.”

How can I recruit an engaged board to guide my organization?

Use try-outs, just like a school recruits band members and athletes. Test the commitment of potential board members by asking them to take on tasks. Make joining the board a privilege. “You create a different dynamic,” Flax said. “They had to go through a number of steps before they could join the board, so they’re going to value the organization at a much higher level.”

Barbara Cornell

BARBARA CORNELL is Engagement Specialist at Foundation Center in Washington, DC. She has volunteered at nonprofits in the U.S., Portugal, Italy and Cambodia. Barbara worked for Congressional Quarterly before becoming a staff reporter for daily newspapers. She has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize by the Kansas City (Mo.) Star and El Nuevo Dia in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She has freelanced for Reuters, Time Magazine and other publications.