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The Elephant in the (Board) Room: Part 1 The Staff’s Critical Role in Development

Let’s talk about the elephant in the (board) room.

Many of us – both staff and lay leadership – have said “I want my board to fundraise” or described a board as “not a fundraising board.” This fundraising trope assumes the board is the most important element of fundraising success. In fact, most fundraising success hinges on the staff.

We dream that if we recruit enough wealthy people to the board, they will ask their friends for large sums of money and our funding challenges will be solved. Except for a few rarefied boards with high net worth donors, most fundraising doesn’t occur that way. When it does, it has its own sustainability issues.

A well-resourced and well-supported professional development team is key. The work of fundraising is time intensive. There’s a reason once organizations reach a certain size that they build a professional team devoted to development. At the end of the day, the process of communicating, thanking, and asking, as well as tracking and pacing donor interactions is a staff responsibility. It might be conducted by the board when an organization is a start-up, but unless your organization is very young or a small, grassroots organization, having the board involved in these tasks is neither optimal nor realistic. Strategically using the board to ask and thank donors is important, but the nuts and bolts of fundraising, the consistency and follow-through that are essential to building a donor’s knowledge and connection to an organization, is staff led.

That doesn’t mean that the board doesn’t have an important role in fundraising (to be discussed in Part 2). And it doesn’t mean that a lack of board participation won’t impede the progress of development staff. For the staff to successfully fundraise they must be adequately resourced. Ensuring that the budget supports this critical staff function IS part of the board’s responsibility. Boards have a fiduciary duty to ensure the organization’s financial success. This duty extends to both the revenue and the expense sides of the ledger, which means making sure development efforts have the resources they need to be successful.

Professionals sometimes underestimate their influence in a successful fundraising process; they especially underestimate their ability to build meaningful relationships with donors. Even if staff aren’t the financial peers of their donors, the fundraising team’s passion and knowledge enables them to forge meaningful connections with donors. Staff also underestimate their own ability to develop strategies for getting new potential donors “in the door.” While staff will not always be able to access high-net-worth individuals without an introduction, “bringing in” and cultivating mid-level donors and then following up with donors are critical activities for a sustainable fundraising strategy both in terms of dollars raised and the stability of the organization’s support.

Development staff are critical to raising the funds to fulfill an organization’s mission. Board members play an overarching role in making sure the budget and staffing structure reflect the critical nature of the work. There are additional, more hands-on, ways the board can contribute to fundraising efforts, which will be covered in Part 2.

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