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Boards Need Staff to Support Scary Fundraising Role

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fundraising role

Embrace reality.

Board members are busy.

Unlike you, they don’t live and breathe your organization.

They want to help (really, they do), but they need your support.


They’re busy.

They don’t have time to figure out what you want and need.

You have to tell them.


You know. Concrete stuff they don’t have to guess at.

  • “Can you make 5 thank you calls in the next week?” 
  • “Can you please call two people in the next two months?”  
  • “Can you bring us a list of donors from [other organization with which they’re involved]?”
  • “Can you invite just one prospective donor to our tour?”
  • “Can you review this list of donors to see if you know any of them?”
  • “Can you sell 2 tickets to our Gala?”

It’s hard for board members to say no to specific, reasonable requests.

It’s easy for board members to put their service on the back burner when it’s unclear what is expected.


One of the key ways to overcome your board members’ fear of fundraising is to be very concrete about what you want them to do.

No more “will you help with fundraising?”

Too vague.

Too scary.

Let’s face it, fundraising for most folks is the “F” word.

Board members don’t really understand the meaning of the word.

And it’s a yucky word in their minds.

This is why I like to reframe the word.

Philanthropy, not fundraising.

What is Fundraising, Really?

The reality is that ‘fundraising’ is just one small step on the road to securing a philanthropic gift.

This is an important distinction to make for board members.

Fundraising is not an end in itself.

It’s a means to a philanthropic end.

The end, of course, being fulfillment of your mission through voluntary acts.

‘Fundraising’ is merely the ask to inspire philanthropy.

It’s one small step – one of many — along the path towards securing a philanthropic gift.

But it’s the step folks most fear.

We’ll dig deeper into why people are afraid of asking, but first let’s understand our terms.

Fundraising vs. Philanthropy

We’ve got the dreaded “fundraising” role. And the more accepted “philanthropy.”

Sadly, most nonprofits talk a lot about the former with their boards and very little about the latter.

This is a mistake.

Because as much as board members (and many staff) dread the fundraising role, they’re happy to embrace philanthropy. You’ll do much better inspiring your board, and donors, if you stop fighting and start inviting.

Fundraising, as it’s too often practiced, has too much to do with coercion. “I’m going to twist her arm.” “I’m going to hit him up.” “We’re going to get them to give until it hurts.” Yipes! People may say these things with tongue in cheek, but the underlying message is fundraising is combative. It’s a battle. You’ve got to gird your loins and really gear yourself up for a difficult, distasteful conversation.  

No one sane would want to do this! 

Philanthropy comes from the Greek and literally means “love of humankind.”

Robert Payton (the nation’s first full-time Professor of Philanthropic Studies and one of the founders of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University) defined it as: “Voluntary action for the public good.” I’ve always loved this definition, because every word is impactful. It’s voluntary (no one is being coerced). It’s action (something is actually being done, whether it’s service or an investment of money) and it’s all directed “for the public good.”  

If your board members are sane, reframing fundraising as philanthropy should be a no-brainer.

Try this exercise with your board.

The goal of this exercise is to help your board approach the fundraising role (what I’d like for you to begin to think of as “philanthropy facilitation”) from a place of “yes.”

Because where money is concerned, we tend to come from a place of “no.” Many scholars argue money is the number one social taboo in America (see also The Last Taboo). Even religion, sex and politics are better discussion topics as far as most of us are concerned. And people think fundraising is all about money. Here’s what I mean: Say the word “fundraising” and look at people’s faces. Their mouths will pucker up in a grimace. Their eyes will squint closed as if in pain. Their brows will furrow. See if that’s what happens with your board! 

  1. At a meeting, ask your board members to give you the first word that comes to mind when they think of the word ‘fundraising.’
  2. Chart these words on a white board or easel.
  3. Now ask folks to give you the first word that comes to mind with the word ‘philanthropy.’
  4. Chart these words on a white board or easel.
  5. Ask the group for their reactions to what they see in front of them.

When I’ve done this with boards, these are some typical reactions:






Hang up






You’ll notice these are pretty much all negatives.

Here’s what happens when we consider the word ‘philanthropy.’










You’ll notice these are all positives.

Money vs. Love 

When viewed as being about money fundraising, at best, is seen as an onerous chore; a necessary evil. We’ll put it off for as long as possible – sometimes forever. This is why many organizations find themselves in an endless cycle of cultivation, never getting around to the “ask.” We even get as far as making solicitation assignments to our volunteers, and they often tell us they are willing. But they back burner the job. We call and remind them. They say “yes, I’m meaning to do that soon.” They don’t. We call again. Nada. Zip. Effectively, we say “no” on behalf of our would-be supporters – never even extending them the courtesy of making their own decision. Before you know it, the year has ended and staff and board have effectively colluded to avoid doing our job of ensuring the organization can continue to fulfill its mission.

Why do we do this, especially with organizations we love? When you serve a social benefit organization (as a staff member, board member or committed donor), aren’t you making a statement about your values? And if you truly value something, wouldn’t you want to share your values with others and enable others with similar values to also participate in the wonderful mission of which you’re a part?

This brings me to the word ‘philanthropy,’ which people paint with a more positive brush than ‘fundraising.’ Philanthropy is based in values. The philanthropic journey is one in which board members, together with staff, show others the path to be the change they want to be in the world. It’s transformational, not transactional. That’s why ‘fundraisers (aka “philanthropy facilitators’) are such superstars. They are the catalysts who make change happen.

Once board members understand their role as noble “philanthropy facilitators” they can shift their brains from a place of “detestable” to a place of “honorable.” Most board members genuinely want to help. They’re simply worried that fundraising is hurtful. It’s your job to disabuse them of this notion. To let them know people feel good when they give, and the board member’s job is simply to facilitate this joyful feeling. 

“Fundraising isn’t a simple process of begging – it’s a process of transferring the importance of the project to the donor.”

Henry A. Rosso, Achieving Excellence in Fundraising

Fundraising is to Development as Sales is to Marketing

Development uncovers folks who share the values your organization enacts. Board members can help with this. Fundraising matches the donor who shares those values with the organization that enacts them. Board members can help with this. In other words, there is more than one way board members can become actively engaged.

I find it helpful to explain a development and fundraising role and responsibilities to board members by analogizing these activities to the for-profit world of marketing and sales.

Let’s look at an example from the world of retail.

Perhaps you have sweaters to sell.

Before you get to the point of sales, you must engage in marketing.

Marketing means a whole range of things.

Marketing means first identifying people who want sweaters. (If you’re considering putting a shop up in the desert, your research will tell you this is probably a non-starter).

It means doing research to understand why people in your identified marketplace want sweaters.

Because, in order to close a sale, you have to find a need and fill it.

Perhaps Claire wants a sweater to look fashionable. While Margaret wants a sweater to stay warm.

Marketing also means discovering market niches with different needs, desires and values.

An important part of this discovery process involves uncovering people’s values.

You may find the ‘Claires’ in your market break down into three separate groups: One wants to look elegant; one wants to look hip, and one wants to look wholesome. The Margarets also break down into smaller niches: One wants to stay warm in the snow; one wants to stay warm on a tropical evening, and one wants simply to feel cozy.

Armed with this knowledge, you’re then ready to begin facilitating the perfect match between what your different constituencies desire and what you have to offer.

You do this by helping people understand how your product meets their needs.

You do this by persuading people you have the best product on the market to meet their needs.

Once you’ve got your prospects all warmed up, the final step is making the sale

Now let’s apply this to the world of social benefit.

Perhaps you have children’s and senior services to sell.

Before you get to the point of sales, you must engage in marketing.

Marketing means identifying people who want to help children and/or seniors.

It means doing research to understand why people want to help these folks.

Because, in order to close a sale, you have to find a need and fill it.

Perhaps Claire wants to help her grandmother live safely at home. While Margaret wants to assure that kids in her child’s K-12 have enough to eat.

You can now facilitate making the perfect match between what your different constituencies desire and what you have to offer.

You do this by helping the Claires understand the range of direct assistance and supportive services you offer that meet her grandmother’s needs. You help the Margarets understand the range of services you offer to help at-risk children and families.

The final step is making the sale.

           Sales and Fundraising are the Joyful Pinnacle of the Pyramid

fundraising role

It’s important to understand the term ‘development’ is nothing more than ‘marketing’ in nonprofit clothing.

Sidebar: My theory is when the term ‘development’ was invented, nonprofits were convinced of the need to steer away from anything that smacked of their for-profit brethren. It was a branding issue. Good vs. evil. So they took all the functions of marketing (research; product development; marketing communications; publicity; public relations; advertising and such) and wrapped them into a ‘development’ bow. In my early years in the development profession, whenever I would tell people I worked in development they thought I was in real estate or construction! In reality, it’s about developing a market (donor prospects) and product (case for support) and then doing the necessary discovery, facilitation, helping and persuading (cultivation) to get to the point where the sale (ask) is likely to be successful.

This is why your board’s ‘development and fundraising role’ is much broader than asking. 

Before the ask comes facilitating the ask. 

In Part 2 (3 Strategies to Find a Fundraising Role for Every Board Member) of this two-part series about helping nonprofit board members embrace their scary fundraising role, we’ll look more closely at specific ways board members can facilitate getting to the point of readiness to make a philanthropic ask. Hopefully they’ll be willing to help with the ask as well, but the work of getting to that point should never be overlooked or diminished. It’s part and parcel of a board member’s ‘fundraising’ role. And it’s a less threatening place to begin.

year-end fundraising

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