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How to Overcome Meddling Nonprofit Management and Boards

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What is it about the fundraising profession that makes people with no training in fundraising or fundraising copywriting think *they* know best?

I doubt these same nonprofit CEOs and/or board members would brazenly walk into an operating room and try their hands at surgery. 

It breaks my fundraising heart each time I read about hard-working fundraisers spending hours crafting a donor-centered appeal only to find their CEO had “fixed it” by: 

  • taking the donor out of the story. 
  • replacing all of the immersive storytelling with a litany of the organization’s accomplishments. 
  • swapping out the plain English for cold, sterile nonprofit business jargon terms like “food insecurity.”  
  • changing the 4th-6th grade reading level for a higher one.

My heart is equally broken when the nonprofit invests in hiring a fundraising copywriter, agency, or consultant and then does the same thing to them.

When I hear about nonprofit management having no respect for the length of time it takes a fundraiser to establish deep relationships with donors to get them ready for a successful ask, I’m equally frustrated.  

I constantly find myself in the company of brilliant fundraisers facing this very dilemma. What can you do? As helpless and powerless as you may feel, there are solutions.  

5 Tips to Overcome Meddling Nonprofit Management & Boards 

#1: Have it both ways. 

If you have a boss who thinks they can do a better job rewriting your appeal, do a split A/B test to see whose appeal performs best.

The results will speak for themselves. This strategy shows your bravery to stand for your principles and your willingness to take a risk.  

If you hit it out of the park and they fail miserably, your results will speak for themselves and you could get the respect and freedom to move ahead unfettered.      

#2: Educate nonprofit management and board members. 

How often do your boss or board members receive fundraising training? Think about including 15-20 minutes of fundraising education at every board meeting and pass on worthwhile studies, articles, and winning examples of fundraising appeals.  

Wondering where to find great examples of successful fundraising campaigns? Look no further than to find a treasure trove of curated fundraising examples featuring interviews with the designers and copywriters and eye-candy examples of each piece.  

Want to add more training at your board meetings in bite-sized chunks? One of my favorite books loaded with fundraising activities for your board is Andrea Kihlstedt and Andy Robinson’s Train Your Board to Raise Money.  

#3: Support your fundraising staff and respect their autonomy.

Fundraising at most nonprofits is a pressure cooker. According to a 2019 study by the Harris Poll, 55% of fundraisers reported feeling “unappreciated” in their work. More than half said they would leave their job within two years.  

Fundraising is both an art and a science. It’s driven by what works—simplicity, clarity, and a heavy dose of emotion—not by what our CEOs or boards wished would work.   

Fail to nurture, reward, and respect your fundraising staff and you’ll lose them—as well as the valuable donor relationships they fostered and the confidence of your donors.   

You have to invest in creating a culture of philanthropy at your organization where the role fundraising plays in fulfilling your mission is understood, valued, and respected.  The same goes for each person hired to fulfill those fundraising roles.

#4: Be clear with your board (and prospective board members) about the role of your staff members vs. the role your board plays. 

I cringe when I hear about nonprofit Executive Directors or CEOs who invite the board in to weigh in on a fundraising decision they have no business making. 

These scenarios could include:

  • an Executive Director or CEO inviting the board to meet and give feedback on the final slate of Development Director or Major Gift Officer candidates. 
  • sharing an appeal, newsletter, or annual report with board members to get their feedback. 

Does that seem harmless? It isn’t! It invites people into a decision-making process where they don’t belong. Once the cat is out of the bag, you can’t take it back, which is why it’s so dangerous.  

On top of avoiding these scenarios, you should discuss the proper roles of board members and staff members in supporting fundraising during the recruitment and onboarding process. Include a “board member versus staff member: whose job is it anyway?” cheat sheet that describes who does what to make it easy. Make sure you review the cheat sheet as part of the recruitment and onboarding process and include it in your board handbook.  

#5: Don’t hire a fundraiser, agency, or consultant if you aren’t willing to let them do the work.  

A few months ago, I referred the Executive Director of a nonprofit to a consultant. Fast forward a couple of weeks: The consultant calls me to say she is firing the client. The client had blown off every deliverable deadline and waited until the last minute to send the consultant their appeal draft. After working all weekend to deliver it to the client on Monday so she could still meet the client’s deadline, the Executive Director complained to the consultant: “I had to go in and fix all your work!”  

What was the Executive Director’s “fix”? They replaced simple, clear plain English with nonprofit jargon and removed all the donor-centered copy.  

Want to contract with a consultant or hire an agency? First, determine your budget. Find professionals with deep expertise and experience. Check their references. Then let them do their work. Send the appeal. If you really think you can do better, test your version against theirs (or don’t hire them in the first place). 

Do you have tips for overcoming meddling nonprofit management and board members (or horror stories of escaping them)? Drop them in the comments below!  

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