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Why we need to drop the idea of 100% board giving

By Vu Le
November 19, 2020

Hands holding several $100 bills fanned out like a deck of cards
Photo by Viacheslav Bublyk on Unsplash

Reprinted from Nonprofit AF.

A few years ago, I led a Vietnamese-community-focused nonprofit as a youthful executive director filled with equal parts optimism and adult acne. I remember though one time at a board meeting trying to get board members to donate. “Please,” I said, “just give something. Anything! Even $5! I just need us to be able to tell funders that we have 100 percent board giving!” The elders stared back blankly at me. I was desperate. “OK,” I said, “how about I give you each $10, then you donate $5 back, and you make a profit of $5!” I was joking, but also kind of not.

The idea of “100 percent board giving” is one of those concepts that somehow have become entrenched in our sector, an unwritten truth that we don’t question. To this day, I still see funders asking about it on grant applications. Fundraisers, meanwhile, whisper warnings to one another: “There was one organization that only achieved 50 percent board giving. Their donations eventually all dried up. If you walk by the office, you can hear faint ghostly echoes of weeping from the development team.”

Well, it’s time to challenge this notion. I don’t believe in 100 percent board giving as a standard. In fact, I think this expectation is extremely problematic, culturally ignorant, and a very white way of doing things. I have already covered why expecting staff to “donate” back to their organizations is awful, rife with power dynamics and borderline unethical. Well, many of the same arguments apply to boards, and there are some other ones to consider:

It reinforces the value of money above all other contributions: Built into the language of “Please give an amount that is personally significant to you” is the subtle message of “we appreciate your other contributions, but we still value money above everything else.” We say we value time, talent, and knowledge, but do we really? We say we appreciate board members who have lived experience, but if that’s true, why don’t we have expectations like “100 percent of our board has personally experienced what it’s like to be in poverty”? Why don’t funders ask, “What percentage of your board members have first-hand experience with the specific issues you are trying to address”?

It keeps boards from diversifying: For a long time, our sector has been whining and moaning about the crappy lack of board diversity in our sector. And yet we continue to focus on recruiting board members who are wealthy or who are connected to wealth. The expectation for 100 percent board giving is a symptom of this inequitable practice. This is not to say that BIPOC, youth, retirees, unemployed folks, people with lower income, etc. can’t give money. Many can’t, but many can and do. However, this conscious and unconscious focus on financial contributions—“Even $5!”—often creates a very unwelcoming culture and atmosphere, and that is one of the reasons folks may not want to join boards.

It is culturally insensitive: The elders on the board of the organization I mentioned earlier were actually offended by this idea that they had to give any amount of money. To them, it wasn’t the money. They always insisted on paying whenever they took me out for lunch; they frequently bought snacks for staff throughout the year. It was insulting to them that for all their contributions in various ways, in time and connections and food and wisdom, it was still not enough. They had to give a symbolic $5 dollars too? The 100 percent board giving idea, like many other rules that govern our sector, does not align well with many cultures, as it is based on white philosophies and values.

It perpetuates power dynamics: Let’s be honest, board members who are wealthy or who are most connected to wealth are usually accorded more respect and influence. We cater to them more. We let them get away with more stuff. We all hear horror stories of board members who don’t experience repercussions for being racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, etc., because they are major donors and the org is afraid of losing their donations. It sets up dynamics where board members are not on equal terms. This is a logical consequence when we focus, again, on money as the most valued of contributions. Imagine if we shifted this to focusing on something like experience in the issues we’re trying to address. Then those who have the most lived experience would have the most influence. The way it should be.

It reinforces white corporate values as default: 100 percent board giving may seem like a relatively minor issue, but it is a symptom of the pervasiveness that white and capitalistic values have shaped our sector. Yes, I am aware that corporate board members actually get paid by the companies whose board they’re on. But this sort of transactional, money-centric way of operating is still very white and very corporate. The organizations I have been involved with that are led by BIPOC folks that are trying to mitigate the effects of capitalism and wealth disparities do not tend to give a crap about whether 100 percent of their board members donated, except when they might be punished by funders for not having that benchmark.

It’s meaningless and prevents more meaningful engagement: 100 percent board giving is considered some sort of indication of how dedicated boards are. Anything less than 100 percent means the board is not truly “bought in” and/or the ED and development team are incompetent. Is this a good gauge for any of that, though? We use proxies for so many things because we’re lazy and don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort to get to the truth. This is why, for example, so many of us still require formal education for many positions, even when it makes no sense to do so and is inequitable. The same goes for board giving. This percentage says nothing about how dedicated boards are, or how competent staff are. I know many amazing orgs and boards that fail this test, and many orgs with 100 percent board giving where the boards or programs are awful.

For these and other reasons, it is time to let this expectation go. Before you get mad at me, I am on boards, and I do give as a board member. And there are many boards that are thoughtful and sensitive in this area, including the two I’m on. What I am asking is for our sector to really consider this and other “best” practices and the philosophies and cultures around them, and to ask whether they are necessary or harmful.

As I wrote earlier, the default board model we have is archaic and often toxic. It is time for us to explore new models (such as DreamRider Productions’s Evolutionary Board Model and Ontario Nonprofit Network’s Reimaging Governance). While we work on that, we can let go of this expectation for 100 percent board giving. And funders need to stop asking this question. There are more important things for us to focus our time and energy on.

And scarier things for us to worry about: “There was one organization where 100 percent of its board members donated money … but none of the board members lived in the community it served or had any personal experience with the issues it was working on. If you walk by the office, you can hear faint ghostly echoes of this organization becoming less and less relevant.”

Tags: Boards; Equity; Fundraising