How to Stop Chasing Your Nonprofit Board and Start Getting Things Done

Burnt Wood.png

It's tempting to think of a nonprofit board as a monolith, a group of people who should move in lockstep at your command. Heck, even the word board suggests a piece of wood that can be put to use in whatever project you have in mind. But the reality is far from that. After all, when you look closely at a wooden board, you see all sorts of grains and knotholes and imperfections. It's time to take a closer look at your human board too.

It sometimes helps to think of your board members more like major donors. They’re unique individuals with a vast array of skills and experiences, people who were drawn to your organization for various reasons under varying circumstances with different perspectives on how to support your organization.

Like a major donor, they have the ability to help you reach your fundraising goals. But just because one of the primary responsibilities of your board is to actively participate in fundraising doesn’t mean that they will or even can do so when and how your needs dictate.

Think about it. You’ll have some type of an activity coming up and you request help from the board to pull it off. More often than not, if any of them help, it’s often very few. In those situations where the majority do sign on to help, you spend all of your time chasing them down, trying to get them to do their part. Either way, you often end up disappointed, frustrated, and questioning the value of involving them at all.

We see this happen all the time. Making a tricky situation even worse, and often despite repeated attempts to promote board member participation, a lot of our clients routinely hear from their board, “We don’t know what we’re supposed to do to help with fundraising.” Which is almost always answered (at least in private) with “You...have...GOT… to be kidding me!”

Think of Them as Individuals

While no wo/man is an island, they are all individuals with different motivations, and the way we’ve learned to get the most out of any nonprofit board of directors is to recognize them just as I described above… unique individuals.

Take time to get to know them. Take them to lunch or meet them for coffee. Look for opportunities to visit with them before or after board meetings and other activities. Learn why they were drawn to your organization in the first place and what gets them excited about your work. Come to understand their schedule, priorities, and general availability relative to everything else in their life.

If this sounds a lot like how you might get to know a major donor, that’s because it is. And just as with a major donor, don’t let the only times board members see you be when you’re asking them for help.

Involving the Board

You would never realistically expect (I hope) 100% of your major donors to attend the same event or give a significant gift on your schedule. Try approaching your board of directors the same way.

When you have a need for board member support, consider the skills, effort, and time commitment involved. Based on your knowledge of the individual board members, identify your top prospects for helping. This might be based on a particular skillset, unique relationships they have, something they would be interested in, or simply their availability to participate. Odds are, however, it won’t include the entire board.

When making plans for your project, be realistic about how many board members are likely to be available, and set your expectations accordingly. If you’re planning an event and “board presence” is needed to help demonstrate the importance of the occasion, think carefully whether all board members are a good fit. We’ve seen several circumstances where, due to personality or political issues, certain board members are more of a hindrance than a help.

If your board is one of those that mistakenly believes they “aren’t a fundraising board” (we feel your pain!), creating personally meaningful opportunities for them to engage is an excellent way to get them involved without them feeling like they are “doing fundraising”.

Though fundraising isn’t a four-letter word, “devo” is. Regardless of whether your organization has a healthy culture of philanthropy or not, almost everyone has anxieties around fundraising in some form or another. If you make board involvement less about capital-F fundraising by looking for opportunities to engage with them as individuals, you’ll spend a lot less time chasing them around and start getting things done.


Image Credit: Martin Abegglen