Focus on Board Participation or Board Leadership?

Which will your board choose?

In today’s competitive fundraising environment it now seems universally recognized that successful organizations strive to attain 100 percent gift participation from their board members. We have observed that many organizations and development officers seem overly fixated on achieving this significant goal of participation. But, is this focus correctly targeted? We think organization’s should focus on board leadership and not simply participation.

Often, in the fervor to achieve this fundraising hallmark, we’ve overheard development staff say to their volunteer board members, “Please make your gift so we can state that we have 100 percent board participation, even if all you contribute is $100.” Especially in this instance, it’s appropriate to reconsider the true objective of securing the board’s financial support early in your organization’s campaign.

The members of a nonprofit board serve many roles, such as protecting the the community’s trust, and enabling the organization to better serve its mission. It is from these basic roles that all other donors should, and often do, gauge the authenticity of and credibility of a nonprofit’s proposed plans based on the generosity of its volunteer leadership.

The drive for 100 percent participation is rooted in the importance of demonstrating the tangible (and hopefully pacesetting) leadership and commitment of the organization’s board. We know that the external community will pay special attention to the level of commitment demonstrated by the board. We know from experience that donors will often give in relation to what others give, and especially in relation to what members of its volunteer leadership contribute.

Board members must set the pace for giving through their own financial commitment. Nothing is more critical or necessary to the legitimacy and success of the fundraising effort. If the governing board – presumably the most involved, committed and capable group of individuals – do not show their generous support, how can they expect anyone else to do so? Board members who make a token gift will not be in a position to play a leadership role in the execution of the campaign.

Provided that board members have already made their own commitments at an appropriately generous level, none are better qualified to ask their peers to do what they have already done. The board members’ peers, in fact, expect to be solicited on behalf of the organization. If peers are not approached, they can only assume that (a) the organization doesn’t need the money, or (b) the organization’s development plan is ineffective . . . . or worse.

The board must evaluate its own composition and performance for effective fundraising. We advise that the organization’s volunteer leadership set high standards for board membership, and frequently discuss the expectations members have of each other. Board members who have been thoughtfully and carefully recruited, oriented, trained and involved, and yet still fail to produce, should be asked to step down to allow others who are able to meet the performance expectations and fulfill the board’s duty to lead the organization forward.

Board members must support the organizations they serve. Unfortunately, too many organizations fail to make this expectation clear to members before they join the board. The subject of financial support is frequently avoided until the last possible minute when such support must be solicited. In these cases, the board has failed to provide the information and genuine involvement that leads naturally to generous financial support.

An effective board authenticates the organization it serves by providing distinguished and meaningful support. When volunteer leaders stand behind an organization, they confer legitimacy and credibility. Real leaders seek active involvement, challenge and responsibility, not just a name on a letterhead. So does your organization promote participation-or leadership?

(click here to download FRM Issue No. 60)

Want to see more?  Read The Goettler Series  Volume 7: The Role of Trustees in Development