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The Elephant in the (Board) Room Part 2: Activating Your Board to Support Development




In Part 1 of The Elephant in the (Board) Room we discussed the idea that, as an organization grows out of the start-up phase or beyond being a grassroots organization, the role of professional staff in a successful development program is key. However, the board has an active role in the fundraising process beyond ensuring that the staff has adequate resources to fulfill their responsibilities.


There is a deep value in having a supporter advocate for the organization when it is not their “job.” Often, the board underestimates the value of being involved in multiple stages of cultivation even if they do not make the actual ask. The activities below, most of which are not direct solicitation and occur at different points in the engagement process, are moments when stewardship by a volunteer leader can enhance the organization’s efforts to build relationship with that donor (or potential donor). Being the one to “make the ask” can be beneficial, but there are numerous other ways board members can strengthen (potential) donors’ relationships with the organization.


1)      Sourcing Potential Donors

  • In addition to asking the board to bring people to a ‘friend raiser’ or a fundraiser, try the lighter ask of asking their friends to join the organization’s email/mailing list.

  • Host a peer sharing session where board members discuss how they talk with friends and colleagues about their service to the organization. Have board members practice how they might mention their involvement with the organization. Board member’s passion for the work is an attractor for people in their circles, and many times board members don’t think to give a concise but meaningful response when chatting with friends or colleagues about “what they are up to.”


2)      Cultivating & Stewarding Donors (activities are often similar)

  • Some board members find it hard to ask for money, but it’s easier to say thank you. Ask board members to write thank you notes or make calls. Similarly, some board members prefer to talk with folks they know, while others are more comfortable when they don’t know the donor. Although building on existing relationships is always great, in either case if a board member is willing to reach out, it’s a benefit to your organization.

  • When board members attend a friend raiser or fundraiser, staff should connect them to attendees. While some board members are comfortable independently starting up a conversation, a warm introduction from a staff member is a simple and effective way to make a guest feel welcome and for a board member to engage a supporter. The welcome table is your key location for introductions (but not the only one)!

  • After the friend raiser or event, ask board members who they met and if they’d like to follow-up with a short note or email. This helps build a chain of positive engagements with the supporter.

  • Ask a board member to join a solicitation or cultivation meeting with a staff member. While there are situations where a one on one meeting is most effective, many times having an ally and additional conversation partner present helps foster a more robust conversation with the potential donor, regardless of whether the board member or the professional ultimately asks the donor for a gift.


How can professional staff or a board chair activate their board to engage in these tasks? First, treat board members as individuals and encourage members to step up for those activities that best align with their talents and comfort level. For board members who aren’t comfortable diving into soliciting, start with activities that have a lower barrier to entry and that help foster connections and relationships with donors and potential donors such as extending thanks on behalf of the organization or calling to invite a donor to an event. As board members engage in these activities it becomes easier for the staff to encourage them to do them again. As your board builds confidence you can ask board members to stretch and try something that’s a little out of their comfort zone.


Overall, play to each board member’s strengths. Who is great at small talk? Who writes good notes? Who is a connector? This work is easier, more successful, and more satisfying when you build on people’s skills and strengths.


Provide opportunities across the year so board members can plug themselves into the parts of the development process where they are most comfortable and have time. Sharing a calendar of development activities early in the year and asking to which activities or times during the year a board member can commit prevents staff from scrambling to recruit volunteers as well as preventing board members from perceiving these staff requests as coming out of the blue.


The more forethought you can have as a staff member, the more support you can garner from your board. This requires work on the part of staff, but it pays dividends in advancing the staff’s development activities and helping both board and staff feel that they are collaborating toward the common goal of a stronger organization.

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