Over nearly two decades of working with nonprofit organizations and their boards, I’ve come to realize that there’s nothing very new under the sun. Now, I’m not one for going with “well, that’s just the way it is” or “this is the way we do it because that’s the way we’ve always done it”. But to respond to a challenge, you have to identify it and name it. So, as an alternative approach, here are the 5 Things You’re Guaranteed to Hear From Board Members AND some alternatives to the traditional thinking that goes with them. And surprise! You’ll find they’re all interrelated…
1. Let’s get a celebrity to (speak at our event, join our board, etc)
At some point in the life of every nonprofit, a board member will believe they’ve pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. They’ll share their best idea yet: Why don’t we get a celebrity who cares about our cause? Brilliant! This may be in response to attracting new board members, testimonials of the work but most often, as a compelling way to attract attendees for a fundraising event. This is, in fact, a terrific idea IF (and yes, that’s a big IF) you already have a celebrity that has been engaged with your organization, is passionate about your mission and is eager to be the marquee headliner helping you get folks to the table. Unfortunately, all too often I’ve seen well meaning boards go down the rabbit hole of searching out celebs only to find they’re not interested or interested in charging insanely high fees for their services.
The Alternative: Call me a realist and/or a cockeyed optimist but do you really want your attendance and engagement driven by a celebrity? What happens if next year you can’t pull in the same level of star-appeal? Why not do the work of highlighting the value of what you do? Share real and human stores of those impacted by their work (with their sign-off of course!) and let them be the stars of the show. They truly are.
2. Bill Gates would definitely support us
Closely related to the above is specificity around a particular celeb, uber-rich person or well-known philanthropist like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos (or better yet his ex-wife McKenzie Scott). The Gates Foundation does so much that nonprofits are almost sure that if he just got to know them, the money would flow. Quite possible but then comes the inevitable question: Does anybody know Bill Gates or (fill in the blank)? Crickets. Does anybody know anybody that knows Bill Gates? Crickets again. And so it goes.
The Alternative: Successful board development and subsequent fundraising comes out of deep commitment to an organization and their mission. When individuals connect with an organization, engage with its mission and those it serves, three things are likely to happen: 1)They’re going to get involved 2) They’re going to get curious or 3) They’re going to say no thanks (sometimes more politely than others!) If the first happens, the potential exists for that individual to give at their highest levels out of a sense of connection and passion for the work. If the second does, it’s the beginning of possibility. And if the third does: NEXT! Take enough prospective donors through the journey and you won’t be looking for Bill Gates.
3. We need more wealthy donors
I’m not sure where it started but the prevailing myth is that in order to contribute to a nonprofit, one must be wealthy. As a hunch, this thinking probably originates with the fact that charitable work grew out of the Puritan idea of tithing and giving a percentage of one’s earnings to social causes. And to be able to spare these funds, individuals have to be wealthy. For more on that history, I highly recommend either of Dan Pallotta books Uncharitable or Charity Case (both are great reads). Regardless, this is an ongoing topic and a wish uttered by most board members, not to mention fundraisers and Executive Directors. “Does anybody know anyone really, really rich??
The Alternative: This just isn’t true. Charitable support is open to anyone and everyone. Nonprofits tend to state a major gift as relative to their budget; however, we might do well to think of these gifts relative to the capacity of the individual doing the giving. I was recently enjoying Lynn Twist’s The Soul of Money (another great read). One of the most profound stories was of her day spent with two donors in two very different circumstances. She spent the beginning of the day with a corporate CEO in Chicago who didn’t blink at writing a $50,000 check without even knowing about her organization’s mission - the company was simply looking for some solid PR. She ended her day in Harlem with a woman who eagerly gave her last $10 out of her passion for Lynn’s cause.…I won’t lie and say I wouldn’t love $50,000 for the organization I fundraise for. But the truth is that if you can motivate someone to give their last $10, you can do it for any level. Get in front of enough prospects and you’ll be re-inventing your organization’s donor pyramid.
4. We’re not a fundraising board - we’re more of a brain trust
In my work as both a full-time fundraiser as well as serving as a coach and consultant, if I had a dollar for every time an ED told me that their board wasn’t a fundraising board, I’d be able to sustain my top 3 favorite nonprofits! While I can’t provide scientific evidence or survey data, my hunch is that no board member was ever recruited with the words, “Please join our non-fundraising board.” Rather, they’re typically told they’re there for their name recognition, brilliance and plenty of other non-financial assets they bring to the table. The financial support is either ignored or soft-pedaled.
The Alternative: OK, I’m sure I’m going to hear from you on this one but this is insanely simple. Recruit a Fundraising Board. That’s right. Say it three times loudly if you need to. When you’re recruiting, be upfront and clear about what you’re recruiting for. If in fact, financial support is amongst the top three of the roles and responsibilities, let them know. If that scares them off, perfect. On to the next candidate.
And last but not least…
5. Can’t we just do a fundraising event?
A little disclaimer here: I work a full-time remote role planning and executing both a grassroots fundraising event as well as a gala for Clearity. Clearity provides hope and support services for women with ovarian cancer and their families. I’ve also spent a good part of the last 14 years either doing the same with other organizations. So I love fundraising events. That being said, they are not a substitute for ongoing donor prospecting and cultivation. Events like a community walk can serve as the”front-porch” that introduces prospective donors to the organization. Endurance-based fundraising events, a personal favorite of mine, can marry the challenge of conquering a big-goal like a marathon, with raising a significant amount for a charity. And galas serve as a way to celebrate the accomplishments of an organization in a more formal setting with day-of opportunities to bring in more funds.
The Alternative: View fundraising events for what they truly are: A unique (and often fun and exciting) part of the donor journey. They are NOT a substitute for it. Board members can leverage these events as opportunities to follow up after the events when participants have a fresh and favorable impression of the organization. That is, in fact, THE reason to have the event in the first place. Often the cost, including hard expenses and staff time, limit the ROE. It’s the follow up and encouragement after the event that truly creates ongoing support.