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[ASK AN EXPERT] How To Help Your Board Overcome Resistance To Fundraising

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity. Today’s question comes from a nonprofit employee who wants tips on overcoming a nonprofit board’s resistance to fundraising:  

Dear Charity Clairity,

Our board is really resistant to fundraising. What tips can you share that will help us mobilize them to be fundraisers?

— Tired of the Battle

Dear Tired of the Battle,

One of the reasons we fight with folks is we don’t take the time to understand their perspective.

Try asking: How might this board member’s resistance to fundraising make perfect sense?

Based on both upbringing and past experience with asking and being asked, board members may have a good reason for their resistance to fundraising.

In my experience, there are three primary reasons people hate fundraising. So, let’s look at them one at a time; then talk about the steps staff can take to address them.

1. They think it’s yucky, and we let them

We tend to make it all about money. And talking about money is a big taboo in our society. We were raised to believe it’s impolite to bring the subject up, so much so we’d rather talk about anything else. Most of us have a deep-rooted psychological aversion to talking about money. Even religion, sex and, politics are better discussion topics as far as most of us are concerned. So, when you bring up fundraising most board members will come at this from a place of revulsion and negativity. You want to get them to come from a place of love and positivity.

Stop letting board members wallow in their fear. This requires retiring phrases about “hitting people up” or “twisting their arm.” The same holds true for saying “no one likes fundraising.” Whew! How can you expect anyone would look forward to that?! It’s about having coffee… making small talk… being interested… learning about what the donor cares about… telling and sharing stories… helping the donor to act on shared values. It’s actually FUN; a way to meet like-minded folks.

TIP: To move board members from a place of “no” to a place of “yes” requires adopting a framework of philanthropy, not fundraising. Here’s an exercise you can do with your board to shift their thinking from A to B:

A. Fundraising = scary; a chore; unpleasant; begging; ugh; necessary evil

B. Philanthropy= giving; generosity; satisfaction; love; joy; appreciation; inspiring; fulfilling

2. They fear rejection

Make sure board understand a “no” is not personal. No can mean many things. Things like bad timing, wrong project, wrong amount, more information needed, and so forth. Many of these obstacles can be overcome. It just takes a little listening to discern what can be said next to keep the conversation going. Asking is a great thing; not asking gets no one anywhere. It’s simply a lost opportunity.

It’s a mistake to assume people don’t want to be asked. When board members love your cause, they should want to share that love. Otherwise, they’re deliberately excluding others from the feeling of joy that comes from being affiliated with your mission. Don’t forget, MRI studies show merely thinking about and considering giving lights up the pleasure centers of our brain and brings a warm shot of ‘feel good’ dopamine.

TIP: To help the board feel okay when they get a “no,” suggest they also ask the question: Why might it make perfect sense for this prospect to say “no” at this point in time? Besides things that can be overcome, there’s also the possibility people say “no” because they’re just not that into the cause. That’s okay. People have different values. It’s no different than saying “Hey, I went to this great sushi restaurant. You have to try it!” And then their friend says “No, I don’t think so. I don’t really like sushi.” It’s not rejection of you; just of the notion that sushi is valuable.

3. They fear looking stupid

It’s not the board member’s job to be able to answer every question. Make sure they know this! If a prospective donor asks a question they can’t answer, that’s okay. They can always say “I don’t know the answer, but I know someone who does. Let me ask and get back to you.”

TIP: Let board know their job is to be the “Yelp” review. After they’ve promised to refer the donor’s questions, they have a perfect opportunity to gush a bit. After all, unlike staff they don’t get paid to say how great the organization is. So, whatever they say carries extra weight. Their job is to speak from their own passion and tell their own story of why your organization is so terrific.

You can help them see things differently – and that’s your job

In addition to some of the tips I’ve already suggested, I’d add these to help you mobilize your board fundraisers.

In a nutshell: Orient; Train; Support; Cheerlead, and Thank

1. Build a strong board nominating committee

You wouldn’t even hire a nanny or housekeeper without lots of thought, interviews and references. Yet many organizations bring on board members just because they’re friends of other board members. You need a vigorous process. What type of skills do you need? What circles of influence in your community are underrepresented? Does the nominee understand the role you expect them to play? Is the nominee passionate about your mission?

2. Develop a strong board orientation program

Create a handbook. Have recruits meet with key staff who will explain how development, finance, marketing and programs work. Give new members a seasoned board member as a buddy/mentor.

3. Create a board development training program.

Provide ongoing sessions on a range of topics (e.g., reading a nonprofit budget; public speaking; running effective meetings, nonprofit marketing, etc.). Provide an annual board training on solicitation – only call it something else (e.g. “Inspiring Philanthropy”).

4. Hold periodic retreats

The best ones are focused (e.g., strategic plan; endowment building; capital campaign; board/staff relationships, etc.) and run by a seasoned facilitator.

5. Meet individually with each board member at least annually

Find out what they’re passionate about, what’s continuing to inspire them, and what’s not working. Develop a personal plan for each one so they feel good about their board service. Stay in touch. Build a personal relationship.

6. Don’t let rotten apples spoil the barrel

If being on a board is unpleasant it’s a bad thing all around. First, make sure you’ve got a good chairperson.  This individual sets the tone. They should be passionate about your cause, compassionate with others, and a good politician. They should understand the role of governance, the difference between your mission (what you do today) and your vision (where you hope to get one day) and the invaluable role donor-investors play in getting you towards your goals. They should partner with the executive director, creating a team that cheers everyone else on. Second, make sure you have a process for removing board members who bring everyone else down. You’re doing no one any favors by keeping on “dead wood.” Consider a term limits policy to make rotating folks off the board a natural process.

When coming from a place of philanthropy (love of humankind), it’s easy to let the battles end and the coming together begin.

— Charity Clairity (Please use a pseudonym if you prefer to be anonymous when you submit your own question, like “Tired of the Battle” did.)

Have you seen success in overcoming your board’s resistance to fundraising? Let us know in the comments. 

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