Boards & Fundraising: Six Crucial Questions

Kay Sprinkel Grace on the questions she's asked most often about boards and fundraising.

It’s a hot-button issue for almost everyone – from monolithic hospitals to closet-sized food pantries.

In my years of consulting I’ve fielded hundreds if not thousands of questions on the subject.

Here, I offer answers to the SIX QUESTIONS I’m most often asked about boards and fundraising.

More detailed responses can be found in my book, The Ultimate Board Member’s Book.

How can I get my board members to ask for money?

I don’t believe you’ll ever get all of your board members to ask. But it’s certainly possible for everyone to play a role in development.

When I worked with the American Library in Paris, guiding a small capital campaign, one board member was responsible for our raising nearly a third of the goal. And she didn’t ask for a penny herself. Instead, the money came from people she had kept in close touch with over the years. She said she couldn’t ask them herself but was happy to let her friends know we’d be in touch. When I thanked her for her role, she apologized for not being able to ask. “You don’t have to,” I assured her. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

What’s the best way to ask board members for their gifts?

First let me say that of all the methods I’ve observed, the group ask is the worst. You know the one I mean. At the start of the fiscal year, envelopes are placed on top of the board packet. The board chair points them out and asks members to write their checks or provide their credit card before leaving. Other boards resort to emails and phone calls.

With people close to our organizations, we insult the relationship by asking them in this way. A far better approach is for the CEO and board chair, each year, to meet individually with board members and address three things: first, thank them for their service, review their involvement (committees and the like) and ask how they’d like to be involved in the coming year; second, ask if there are any issues they’d like to bring up relative to their current level of engagement – family or business matters that might keep them from being so involved, or areas of dissatisfaction with their board service; and third, ask them for their annual (and/or capital) gift in a way that models how you’d like them to ask others if or when they’re assigned to do so. Board members are worth every minute we spend with them. Volunteers are unpaid not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless (Erma Bombeck).

My board won't provide names of potential donors — what can I do to encourage them to offer names of their connections?

This is a chronic problem, and I believe it’s because board members aren’t assured of the process you’ll use to reach out to the names offered. Board members worry is that a well-meaning development officer will immediately call the contact, use the board member’s name, and ask for a gift.

In my experience, what helps is to review the full development process with the board before asking for anyone to open their address books. The four steps that precede the ask are ones in which the recommending board member can and should be involved:  identification (providing names), qualification (giving insights about potential interests or funding level), development of strategy (who shall approach and how) and cultivation (inviting to lunches or events or putting on the emailing list).

Only if this process goes well does solicitation take place. Board members need to trust this process before they’ll hand over names. 

My board members think if they get their employer to give, that takes the place of their personal gift.

This is the unfortunate fallout of an approach that gained favor with boards: “Give OR get.” We made it sound as though you could either give yourself or get the money from elsewhere. That just doesn’t work. As I say in my book, Over Goal, we need 100 percent participation from board members. It’s “give AND get.” Even when a board member’s gift is modest, it’s important for many foundation and individual funders to know that 100 percent of the board members are giving from their own resources as well as leveraging their employers to invest. 

What’s the best way to communicate to my board that before they ask, they need to make a gift themselves?

The language of solicitation is inclusive: “Join with us…” “Be part of our mission…”  How can we say that if we ourselves haven’t made a financial commitment? That’s my philosophical response. But there’s a practical one, too.

In my volunteer work, the donors I approach want to know what I’m doing for the campaign. They may not ask me the specific amount, but in one campaign where I played a leadership role I was able to say, “I’ve made the largest gift I’ve ever made to this organization, and I hope you’ll consider doing the same.” In another situation, when asking a donor for a “blended” gift (part outright, part as a planned gift) I was able to talk about my own blended gift and how meaningful it had been for me to structure it that way. We’re hollow in our advocacy and our asking if we ourselves haven’t made a commitment. 

How do I find confident askers to join the board?

There are two sources of confident askers – one is more reliable than the other. The first is to identify those in your community who are known as great askers, who’ve raised money for other organizations, and are now joining yours. These are the ones I’m less confident about. I say this because it’s difficult to assess the circumstances (at other organizations) that made them successful.

I believe the most confident askers are “home grown” individuals ignited with the passion for your mission, convinced of the financial integrity of the organization, trained in the “Big 3” (cultivation, solicitation, stewardship), are offered tasks in their confidence zone.

To me, growing your own is a better bet than thinking someone who was a notable success at the symphony with a large development support staff will also flourish in your food bank with minimum staff and a very different message.

Kay Sprinkel Grace is a prolific writer, creative thinker, inspiring speaker, and reflective practitioner. Her passion for philanthropy and its capacity to transform donors, organizations, and communities is well-known in the U.S. and internationally. Kay lives in San Francisco and is an enthusiastic photographer, traveler, hiker, and creative writer. When not writing, speaking, or consulting, you can find her with her children and grandchildren who live in San Francisco, upstate New York, and France.