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Overcome these board excuses for not fundraising

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If any of the scenarios discussed in this blog have been holding your organization back, then learn how to practically address your board’s issues during Sean’s upcoming webinar Transform Your Board’s Fundraising in 90 Days on Thursday, February 17.

I love fundraising.

There is something deeply satisfying about moving wealth from where it lives (in someone else’s checking account) to where it can change the world (in my organization’s checking account!). But most people don’t see fundraising as a joy. They see it as a chore or a necessary evil: It’s something they must endure. You’ll probably never do as well at fundraising if you have this attitude, and unfortunately most nonprofit boards are packed with people who feel this way. It may be the single biggest reason why most nonprofits struggle or even fail at reaching their mission.

Shifting this mindset can dramatically change your board’s fundraising success and your organization’s ability to grow. I’m a strong believer that ALL board members should fundraise and have tools to help.

Attitudes about money will limit your board’s success.

People have lots of hangups about money. In the US, it’s considered taboo to talk about someone’s income, salary, or debt. People have guilt about having money and even try explaining it away. For example, have you ever noticed that when you pay someone a compliment about something they own, they fall all over themselves to let you know they didn’t pay full price? (“Oh, this old thing? I got it on sale.”). Why don’t people just say “thank you” when complimented on their possessions?

My theory is that it isn’t about modesty or humility. I think people downplay being able to afford nice things because they/we don’t want to be judged. We don’t want to be judged for being extravagant. We don’t want to be judged for having nice things, when so many others are living without. We don’t want to be seen as rich or privileged. Americans of every income level, even the rich, see themselves as hard workers that earned their wealth. Few things are more offensive to Americans than being told they are privileged. Fear of judgment is just one of the many hang ups we have about money. By not talking more openly and honestly about wages, salary, debt, and costs we reinforce  a culture of secrecy around money.

“If I have to ask my friends for money, it means I have to think about their income and wealth, privilege, and ability to donate. That is uncomfortable and I don’t want people doing that to me, so I’d rather not think about it.”

We must undo this attitude that money is taboo or that asking people for money is somehow impolite. We ask for money because we are trying to solve problems. We must ask for money because people in need are counting on us to be leaders and to push through the discomfort.

Here are a few attitudes your board members probably struggle with, and how you, possibly with the help of a fundraising expert, can shift their thinking.

1. Asking for money is not asking for a favor.

Board members may be reluctant to ask people they know to donate money, thinking that they are asking for a favor, but this is not so. No one wants to impose or ask for favors because it can create a sense of debt towards the other person, or fear that it may alter the dynamic of the relationship. Research shows humans will try to avoid feeling bad about themselves and will avoid owing a debt. So there is a natural inclination to avoid asking for favors.

When you ask for money, you’re actually doing the donor a favor, not asking for one. There is a good chance that most people you know share your values (wanting a clean environment, fair treatment for others, and an end to disease and poverty) so asking them to donate to a cause is giving them an opportunity to create the world they want to see, too. You are helping them feel good about themselves and their legacy.

The number one reason why people donate is that it makes them feel good, and research backs this up. The number one reason why people don’t give money is because they weren’t asked. We must ask more people for money more often because it makes them feel good to donate and gives them an opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves. I can’t tell you how many well-off people struggle to think of a charity to give to when asked—because they aren’t being asked to help!

Asking your coworker to cover your shift at work is asking a favor. Asking them to pitch in for a cleaner community is doing a favor for the world, not you. They are the donor, you are the do-er. It’s a partnership. Pure and simple.

2. Asking for money is not rude.

If I tell my neighbor that I’d love for them to pitch in (if they’re able) for a new swing set at the park, I am not being rude. What would be rude is being pushy, or using guilt, or putting someone on the spot in front of their peers. Calling to ask for money during dinner may be bad timing but you aren’t being rude for trying. Asking people to contribute is an act of fellowship and generosity. It’s friendly. It’s part of being in a community. It is the opposite of being rude!

3. Quid Pro Quo.

Some board members won’t want to solicit others for donations, for fear that it will obligate them to donate back to everyone they solicited. This is a rational fear, but most likely not a problem.

First of all, the vast majority of people out there aren’t fundraising, so the odds that someone you asked for money is going to then ask it of you, are slim. But when it does happen, don’t feel like you must say yes to them or give the same amount they gave to your fundraiser. This fear must be managed. Yes, reciprocative giving may mean you donate a little more next year (if you can), but is that such a bad thing? If you aren’t able to give, stand in your truth. “I don’t have the means myself…that’s why I fundraise.”

These are just three of the common mindsets out there we must address to get our boards to step up. Now let’s shift from the attitudes and mindsets that we must abandon to actual things your board members may say as reasons (excuses) not to fundraise.

And let me be clear…I am under no illusion that fundraising can be equally performed by all people. There are real issues of class, wealth, and access to money that we must contend with. There are cultural issues to consider and even having time to fundraise, for some, is a luxury.

But I also don’t want nonprofits making the assumption that young people or low-wealth board members can’t fundraise. That default assumption is also wrong, and we do a disservice to people by assuming they can’t raise money, thereby holding them to lower standards. *A special note here about equity: this same attitude leads to a softer form of discrimination: unfounded assumptions that poorer people, many of whom are people of color (POC) or immigrants, won’t be able to fundraise well, leads mostly white boards to avoid asking POC to help or join their board, further consolidating power and privilege in the hands of white and upper class folks. 

Board excuses and your potential responses

We need to appreciate our board members, but we must also hold them accountable and have high standards for them. Gone are the days when we could just grab anyone willing to attend meetings.

There may be class, cultural, or other reasons why a tiny percentage of boards are not expected to fundraise. These reasons may limit your size and capacity, and you may be okay with that. The vast majority of you, however, want your board to fundraise, and this blog post is for you.

Some of my responses to board members in this section are direct, and sometimes cheeky or even a tiny bit sarcastic: I do that to demonstrate my point of view only. It is up to you to decide the tone and temperament when talking to your board, so use common sense and be polite. You know your board members more than anyone. Use these responses at your own risk!

Nearly every excuse given by board members for not fundraising can be prevented or addressed by being clear about the fundraising requirement when you bring them on, and then remind them of this obligation during their orientation. Let me repeat: 90% of the problem is not being clear and honest when you bring on a board member.

*In these examples, “Sally” or “Steve” will be the fictional board member to whom I respond.

***

Excuse: “Someone else is to blame.”

Sometimes board members don’t want to take responsibility for not fundraising, so they shift the blame to donors, staff, other board members, or a “bad” consultant.

Response: “Sally, it may be true that the development committee hasn’t met in months and that our development director hasn’t trained you yet. But ultimately each board member must make this commitment. As an ‘owner’ of this nonprofit corporation, revenue is part of the job. While you wait for help, what steps can you start taking today?”

***

Excuse: “Something else is to blame.”

Some board members will blame the seasons (tax season, election season, etc.), current events, the economy, competition, the weather, COVID-19, or other factors for not raising money.

Response: “Yes, Steve, these are indeed things happening in the world, but it doesn’t mean we should give up. Countless organizations have overcome worse times than these. The people we serve are counting on us to find the best practices that work and deploy them. We need each board member to lead by example and that means getting creative. Can we count on you to double down and work with our organization to write a solid plan, and hit your goals? What support will you need?”

***

Excuse: “Fundraising makes me uncomfortable.”

Some board members won’t even be able to articulate why they don’t want to raise money, but it is usually because they think it’s pushy, they don’t want to ask their own network for help, they fear rejection, or they’re just inexperienced.

Response: “Sally, let’s unpack this a bit. Are you uncomfortable because it is unfamiliar to you or because you lack experience? Then, let’s get you more training or a buddy. Or, are you uncomfortable because you don’t think you’ll be good? Are you shy? We have some methods that are easier than others you can try.”

***

Excuse: “It feels like I am begging.”

Response: “Steve, this comes down to a fundamental mindset shift. Fundraising is a joy. Moving wealth to resource our work is so rewarding. We aren’t begging. We’re helping people fund the world they want to live in. Remember; they are the donor, you are the do-er. It’s a partnership. People donate because they want to help and to feel good about what they’ve done.”

***

Excuse: “I don’t want to ask my friends.”

Some board members immediately rule out the audience of people who are most likely to give them money.

Response: “Sally, If you don’t want to ask your friends, that’s fine. You can ask strangers but that isn’t as effective. In fact, you may have to ask 20 times as many strangers to raise the same amount of money that you could raise with just a few calls or emails to your network. There is a way to ask people to pitch in that doesn’t put them on the spot. Let’s do that together.”

***

Excuse: “I already ask so much of my board”

Sometimes executive directors and board chairs are enabling the problem. They don’t want to push fellow board members to fundraise, so they compromise and settle for a less effective board. This is a trap and will lead you to settle for lower standards for the people you serve.

Response: “This is true. We do ask a lot of our board. But that’s because board members aren’t typical volunteers. They are the stewards of the organization. If they can’t do what is needed, then let’s find a different leadership or volunteer role for them in the organization.”

“The time has come to have high standards for our board leaders and stop pushing all the work to a few people in the organization to pick up the slack.”

***

Excuse: “I give of my time (I do more than the other board members).”

Response: “Yes, Steve, thank you for giving your time. But all volunteers give of their time. You are a board member; so we expect more of board volunteers. You are, in a way, an “owner” of this nonprofit corporation. Owners of all corporations are responsible for revenue. Let’s find a way together to raise this money. You’ll feel great when you hit this goal.”

“If you only want to give of your time, then let’s find a new role for you and make room on the board for someone who can help the organization with fundraising.”

***

Excuse: “I joined the board to lend my skills, expertise, and governance only.”

Response: “Sally, that is amazing. We appreciate you immensely. But part of your governing function is passing a budget. Once a board passes a budget that includes revenue and expenses, you have a moral and legal responsibility to ensure the budget you passed is funded. We can’t just delegate all the challenging work to the staff. As board members we must model good behavior.”

***

Excuse: “I wasn’t told I needed to fundraise.”

Response: “When you were brought on the board perhaps it wasn’t clearly communicated that we need you to fundraise, or it wasn’t a priority then. But, it is now. We value you, so let’s find a way to keep you as a leader in our organization. We can provide any coaching or training you may need to fulfill the duties of a board member.”

***

Excuse: “I don’t know any rich people.”

Response: “We actually don’t need rich donors to have a thriving organization, although we won’t turn them away. Wealthy donors will present themselves to you over time, but it is much more sustainable to have a larger group of small donors who really believe in us.”

***

Get a board agreement

In my experience, if board members strongly resist fundraising, they will probably never come around. Your organization must then decide whether to be OK with this, or to replace them. But holding different board members to different standards may damage cohesion and lead to resentment. Hopefully everyone handles it like an adult. This can be fraught with emotion, because board members who won’t fundraise are sometimes lovely people and we don’t want to see them go. Sometimes, in the interests of your organization and stakeholders you have to make this tough call.

The single biggest tool you can use to get a board to fundraise, despite any excuses, is a board agreement. It’s like a contract. Board members should sign a board agreement at the beginning of every term, if they have terms, saying they will have strong attendance, raise money, and avoid conflicts of interest. In turn, the organization will provide insurance to board members, be transparent about the finances and management, and also make staff available, when appropriate, to help the board.

Board agreements help you recruit board members by being clear up front on what their job is. Board agreements help you remove low performing board members because they know they didn’t uphold their part of the deal. Board agreements can be flexible, but they do help organizations take governance far more seriously.

If any of the scenarios discussed in this blog have been holding your organization back, then learn how to practically address your board’s issues during Sean’s upcoming webinar Transform Your Board’s Fundraising in 90 Days on Thursday, February 17.

For more information on board agreements, email [email protected]

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