In 2016, I joined a small team at an education startup. We aimed to get technology solutions to public school teachers in India, and since most teachers lacked basic computer skills, we also trained them to use the solutions we sourced. Needless to say, fundraising was key.
In our attempts to raise money, we called pretty much everyone we knew (and their friends), but like almost every superhero movie arc, we quickly realized our most important (fundraising) asset was right here all along: our board.
Most nonprofits struggle to engage their board in fundraising. The frantic pace of startups can also impede strategic or long-term approaches to engagement. Ad hoc requests to your board might work - but what will set you on the path to fundraising success is making your board an integral part of your overall strategy.
Your board members are your champions. Here’s how to get them to see it this way too!
1) Set Expectations Early
If you’re still recruiting board members, make sure they know their role will include active fundraising. Help existing board members understand how important their contribution to fundraising can be - talk about your strategy, share fundraising goals for the year and list specific ways in which you’d like their help.
2) Start Small
Your board members are busy people. Make it easy for them to contribute by giving them simple tasks to accomplish - make 3 phone calls, invite 5 people to your next event, write 3 thank you notes to important donors. Give them a generous timeline, (a month is good), follow up in polite ways, and ease board members into the fundraising game on their terms (to the extent you can).
3) Get Personal
Instead of announcing you need $100,000 from all board members by the end of the year - speak to them individually. Ask how they’d like to contribute and what they can commit. Some of the most effective boards I’ve seen are the ones where members are not given a specific “give-or-get,” but instead members are asked to give or raise “what is a significant contribution for them.” Since commitments are coming from your board members themselves, they’re more likely to follow through. Finally, asking, instead of telling them what you need, can also throw open new opportunities, invites them to help problem solve, and often leads to ideas you hadn’t considered before.
4) Make it Easy
Board members are often successful in their own industry or career, but may or may not know anything about fundraising. Rather than making them start from square one, draft emails that they can copy, modify, and send on to their network. Create sample social media posts they can use online. Provide written letters from your Director, but then ask board members to add a small, handwritten personal note. Making participating easy makes it more likely a board member engages and follows through with their commitment.
5) Don’t Limit Yourself to Money
Board members have a lot to offer. Focusing solely on funding might cause you to miss out on other ways in which they can contribute. Mentorship or expert advice from board members are as valuable as the connections they make.
6) Focus on ‘Soft’ as Well as ‘Hard’ Asks
Board members may feel uncomfortable asking directly for donations, but most are extremely willing to raise awareness about your organization or ask their network to buy tickets for fundraisers. Many board members are also willing to set up one-on-one meetings with prospects, organize a dinner with key stakeholders, or even host a gathering at their home to talk about your mission and impact. Educating board members on how such actions are part of fundraising, can help them gain confidence in their role as fundraisers.
7) Give credit where credit is due (or even maybe when it’s not)!
Once you’ve got your board members actively reaching out, make sure you let them know if they’ve been successful. Don’t wait for board meetings - follow up with emails or calls once you’ve achieved key fundraising milestones! If you’re behind - schedule a meeting to discuss alternative strategies or ask for their advice moving forward. Even if a board member only played a minor role in a donation, celebrate their involvement publicly to give them a sense of accomplishment and help develop a culture of fundraising among all your board members.
Engaging board members is the secret weapon most nonprofits fail to use. Setting expectations and communicating clearly with board members can open doors to new and interesting opportunities and set you on the path to fundraising glory!