A Simple Strategy for Engaging Your School’s Board in Fundraising

Your school’s board of directors (or board of trustees) can be a huge help to your development program… but only if they are actively engaged in the school’s fundraising efforts.

This means that the board should not only hold an organized board giving campaign each year, but that the board should also help the non-profit build a fundraising network by opening up their own personal Rolodexes to help the organization grow its prospect list.

That being said, your board members probably didn’t get involved with your school because they love fundraising.  And many board members feel that the schools they serve ask them to go back to the same people for money again and again, which obviously produces diminishing returns.

And… frankly… many schools recruit board members with the notion that fundraising is only a small part of what the board does.  Then, those same organizations change course when a consultant tells them that the board should be far more involved in development than it currently is.  When this happens, board members feel shell shocked, and often reluctant.

Don’t Commit these Board Fundraising Mistakes

Much of the fear and anxiety that board members feel about fundraising is inadvertently caused by the school’s development staff. So often, Development Directors and Heads of School approach board members with what I call “fundraising dictates.”  These dictates usually sound like this:

  • “We need you to give us the names of 5 people we can approach for gifts.”
  • “It’s annual gala time.  Who can you get sponsorships from?”
  • “I want to set up more fundraising meetings this year.  Which of your colleagues can I ask for a gift?”

With an approach like that, it’s no wonder a board member would be reluctant to share her friends, family, coworkers and business partners with the school.  If the fundraising team is that tactless with their own board member, imagine how forward they will be with her contacts!

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Board Fundraising Need Not Cause Anxiety

Asking your board to help you raise more money need not cause anxiety or sleepless nights.  The board should see fundraising as a partnership between the development office and the board, as opposed to a competitive venture where the development staff is constantly trying to trick the board into sharing more names or make more asks.

The best way to reduce anxiety is to stop seeing your board as a source of revenue, and start seeing your board as a source of introductions.  Sure, your board should directly donate to your school.  And yes… your board should occasionally make asks from folks in their network.  But for the most part, your board should be introducing their friends and business associates to your school, and your team should be slowly and respectfully walking these contacts down the cultivation funnel.

You don’t need your board members to be salespeople for your school… instead, ask them to be ambassadors for your non-profit, helping you meet new people and reach into new networks.

A Simple Strategy that Works

Many times, when I work with a school that wants its board to be more active in fundraising, I tell them to try this simple strategy:

First, at your next board meeting, tell the board that you are changing tactics.  You are no longer asking the board to directly ask for money, unless they feel comfortable doing so.  Instead, you are asking the board to make introductions for your school and to serve as ambassadors for your institution.

Second, walk the board through your cultivation funnel.  Tell them that when they refer someone to the school, all they need to do is make the introduction (preferably in-person).  You will take it from there.  You won’t ask the person for money during the first meeting or call.  You won’t ask the person for money during the second meeting or call.  Instead, you will build a relationship with them.  You will cultivate before you ask.

Third, set up a series of non-ask events at your school (for example, campus tours or roundtable events).  Ask your board members to consider inviting colleagues and associates to these events.  Remind your board that you won’t ask for money at these events, or during the follow up call.  Sure, you will eventually ask for money, but only when the person says they really want to get involved.  Build trust with your board.

Time and again, I have seen this strategy work with school boards.  Over time (usually 6 months to a year), the board starts to trust the development staff with their friends, family and business associates.  They start to make introductions, trusting that the fundraisers won’t jump the gun… allowing the school to stop begging for introductions, and earn them instead.

Finding a Fundraising Role for Every Single Member of Your Board

Every board member can find a comfortable role to play in helping your school raise money.  Below are the four main fundraising roles your board can play, along with the qualities that are required for each role.  Read through them, share them with your board, and see where each of your board members fits best:

1: Board Members as Donors

This is a role that every board member should play.  Every board member should be making a monetary gift to your school each and every year.  100% board giving sets a good example and shows the staff, volunteers and other donors that the board is committed to the cause and to fundraising for the cause.  When board giving is less than 100%, it makes donors, including foundations and other institutional givers, wonder whether something might be wrong at the school that they don’t know about.

Qualities Necessary to Fulfill this Role:  Membership on the board (All board members should be making annual gifts to the school).

2: Board Members as Visionary Fundraising Leaders

Some board members will be particularly well-suited to providing leadership for your fundraising strategy and program.  The board, as a whole, should be charting a path forward by deciding whether your organization will be growing, shrinking, or maintaining the status quo in terms of programs and services.  This directly impacts your fundraising goals.

The development committee of the board should be setting broad fundraising goals for the organization, in consultation with the staff, as well as making sure that there are firm deadlines behind your fundraising strategy.  And, one of the most important roles of the board as fundraising visionaries is to make sure that the fundraising program has the people, budget and other resources that it needs to meet the organization’s revenue goals.

Qualities Necessary to Fulfill this Role:  Strategic vision, ability to provide motivation and oversight, willingness to fight for fundraising resources for the development staff.

3: Board Members as Fundraising Support

Many board members enjoy this role the most, as it allows them the chance to make a real impact on your organization’s fundraising without the pressure of making introductions or asks.

Your board members can serve as a great support to your fundraising team in lots of different ways, including going along on fundraising meetings, making thank you calls to donors, and attending events to meet other donors in person.

Qualities Necessary to Fulfill this Role:  Social / people skills, willingness to roll up their sleeves and work hard on things like phone-a-thons and events.

4: Board Members as Ambassadors

I believe this is one of the most important roles for board members to play when it comes to fundraising. 

What does it mean to be an ambassador for your organization?  It means that your board members should help you make connections with people that you don’t already know.   Your job, as a fundraiser, is to then cultivate and communicate with these new people that you are introduced to, and slowly walk them down the path to becoming more involved with your non-profit, and ultimately to becoming a donor.

Your board can be a huge help in expanding your donor network and building new, lifelong donor relationships for your organization – if you give them the tools, training, and motivation to do it the right way.

Qualities Necessary to Fulfill this Role:  Networking skills, a willingness to make introductions for the organizations, enjoy helping people connect with each other.