Susan Howlett recently joined us for a webinar in which she helped viewers find out what’s really keeping their board from passionately engaging others in their mission. She also shared simple, no-cost steps that can be taken to remove those barriers, without adding more to an already full plate.
In case you missed it, you can watch the replay here:
Steven: All right, Susan, my watch just struck 1:00 Eastern. Is it okay if I go ahead and get us started officially?
Susan: I’m ready.
Steven: All right, awesome. Well, good afternoon everyone if you are on the East Coast and good morning of course if you are on the West Coast or somewhere in between. Thanks for joining us for a special Wednesday edition of the Bloomerang webinar series. We’re going to be talking about helping to get your board fired up about raising money for your organization. So glad you’re all here with us today, absolutely appreciate you taking an hour out to join us. We got a really great presentation in store for you. Just a couple of housekeeping items before we get started. I want to let everyone know that we are recording this presentation and I’ll be sending out the recording as well as the slides later on this afternoon.
So if you have to leave early or perhaps you want to just review the content later on or share it with a friend, you’ll be able to do that. Have no fear at all, just look for an email from me later on this afternoon with all that good stuff. And as you’re listening today please feel free to chat in any questions or comments for our guest as you listen. We’re going to save sometime at the end for Q&A, so do not be shy. We’ll make it as interactive as possible. Don’t sit on those hands by any means, we’d love to hear your questions and comments.
You can follow along on Twitter with us today if you’re into that kind of thing. You can use the #bloomerang or @bloomerangtech is our user name. And if you are listening by your computer speakers today, if you have any trouble with the audio, it’s usually a little bit better quality by phone just because it doesn’t rely on an Internet connection or anything like that. These webinars are usually only as good as your own Internet connection. So if you don’t mind calling in by phone, if you can do that, you’ll find a phone number in the email from ReadyTalk that had all the great login information.
And just in case this is your first webinar with Bloomerang, I want to say a special welcome to you folks. We do do these webinars just about every week. We have a great guest on. Today’s presentation is going to be no exception to that at all. But in addition to our webinars, we also offer donor management software. That’s kind of our core business. And if you are interested in maybe taking a closer look at our software or maybe if you’re going to be in the market sometimes soon, check us out. You can go to our website. You can even download a quick video demo and get an insight look at the software. Don’t even have to talk to anybody to do that if you don’t want to. So I love for you to check us out and learn more about Bloomerang later on.
But for now, I’m super excited to introduce today’s guest. I cannot remember getting more replies to the webinar invitation emails, lots of people reply to me and said how much they love Susan, how much they’re interested in attending and how much they’re looking forward to it. So Susan Howlett, welcome. You’re in good company today. We got a lot of groupies here that appreciate you. So Susan, I really appreciate you coming on board. Thanks so much.
Steven: And I want to brag about you just before I cut you lose. If you guys don’t know Susan, you got to know her. One of the reasons she’s on the webinar series with us is she is one of the speakers at the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference. We’ve a few other speakers from the conference in the past few weeks and months. That’s an event happening next week in Chicago. If you don’t already have your tickets to it, shoot me an email. Let me know and I might be able to get you a scholarship or a discount code there.
One of the reasons we had Susan on is because she is super smart and super experienced. She’s got over 40 years of experience in nonprofit fundraising. She has been a board member, a development director, an ED, and most recently a consultant. She’s worked with thousands of nonprofits helping them with board development, fundraising, all that good stuff. She has taught fundraising at the University of Washington for over 25 years and she is the author of two great books, “Boards on Fire: Inspiring Leaders to Raise More Money Joyfully,” and “Getting Funded: The Complete Guide to Writing Grant Proposals.” So if you’re interested in grant-writing check out that book as well.
So Susan, I am not going to take any more time away from you. I’m going to hand things over to you to get us started and help us do some board fundraising. So take it away my friend.
Susan: All right, here we go. So hey there and good day to you. And we said some of you are good afternoon people and some of you are good morning people. Steven says we’ve got people from the East Coast, the West Coast, the North, the South and in between. So wherever you are I wanted to give a hats off to you today for carving out time to invest in your own professional development and the health of your organization. So whether you’re a board member or development staff, or an ED or consultant I’ve been in your shoes and I know how hard your work is so I really appreciate you taking this time out of your busy schedule and I promise you it’s going to be worth your while.
And I want you to know that during the next hour you’re not alone because all of those other people who are here today are experiencing the same frustrations that you are and they feel your pain and we’re all in this together. So know that you’re among friends today. So raise your hand if your board members are on fire about fundraising, you know, willing, eager, effective. Yeah, I don’t think so. So I’ve consulted these thousands of organizations across the continent over the last 40 years and it seems to be the most prevalent complaint among nonprofits everywhere that their board members say they’re going to raise money and they actually mean to but they consistently fail to follow through when it’s time to get corporate sponsors or fill their table for the event or secure in-kind gifts of goods or services or introduce organizations to potential donors in their circles or even help us deepen relationships with current major donors.
However, over time, I’ve come to realize that their failure to deliver isn’t actually their fault. So it’s easy for us to blame them but there are actually barriers in between them and success. And some of those barriers we have unwillingly put in front of them. A few years ago, I wrote down 10 of the most common barriers that I see that keep board members from being successful. And I offered some simple ways to overcome each one of them and I turned that into a book called “Boards on Fire,” which Steven mentioned earlier. So there are 10 or 11 barriers in the book and I’m going to go to three of them today and suggest some practical no cost ways to address those, systemic issues in your organization that are keeping board members from being all that they can be on your behalf.
So when I say systems in your organization, here’s what I mean, a system of course, is a group of related parts that move or work together. And there are lots of things in our life that are systems. Our computers are systems, our families are systems, towns, ecosystems, computers, and your organization is a system in itself with many interrelated parts. And if you see behavior that you don’t like in one part of the organization, the root cause is likely in another area. So like a spider web, you know, where you pull on one little strand and the whole rest of the web moves, the same way when I see boards not doing something that we want them to do. I look for the root cause elsewhere in the system.
So when our board members aren’t raising money joyfully or successfully, or on time, or the way we ask them to do, you usually find that there’s a systemic problem behind that that has gotten in their way. So you’ll find all the barriers that are in my book listed on my website and detailed in my book, but I’m going to go into three of them during this next hour and each major topic is going to be in red on your screen.
So here’s the first one that the expectations haven’t been made clear. So when I’m training boards, which is almost every day of the week, I ask them, “So, why aren’t you guys giving your own generous gifts? Why aren’t you getting sponsors? Why aren’t you asking your friends for money and so on?” And people inevitably say to me, “Well, Susan no one told us that that was an expectation when they recruited me for this board.” So that always make me wonder why aren’t we being clear with these people when we recruit them. Why aren’t we telling them what we need them to do?” And the answer is almost always “Well, we thought they wouldn’t say yes to joining the board.” And I’m like, “Well, what the heck is up with bait and switch? Why do we think that they would change their minds after they got on the board? If they don’t want to do it during recruitment, why would they want to do it later?”
So I think that we really need to be careful about what we’re saying to people during recruitment. So during the whole recruitment and courtship phase I think we need to be really honest and really unapologetic about what we need from these people or we can’t fault them for not doing it. One of my favorites is when we invite really rich people onto the board and we want them to make their own gifts and introduce us to the people in their circle. And then a year later we’re kind of annoyed that they haven’t done either. And so we’ll them take aside and say, “So, we’re a little concern that you haven’t made your own gift and ask your rich friends too.” And they were like, “Oh, no one told me that.”
So on training I ask people what exactly are you asking people to do? And a lot of times people can’t actually tell us what the board members are supposed to be doing. And so I say if we haven’t told them really clearly and over and over and over again, we can’t be mad at them for not doing these things. So when I asked, what are you asking people exactly to do? No one can ever nail it. Maybe somebody will say, “Well, they ask me to make my own gift or they ask me to fill a table at the event. But we should be so clear both during recruitment and then often afterwards during board meetings that everyone on the board can answer that question when I ask it unequivocally.
So here are the three things that I think we should say, of course there are more, but these are the most important ones. The first one is to make their own gift and I don’t think that . . . I actually don’t like it when we say there’s a certain amount because I think that that keeps some people from joining the board who could be really good board members, and other people could give us ten times that but if we say a number everyone sticks at that number and they don’t move on. So I think giving them a specific numbered like a give or get goal is bad, but I do think that we need everybody to make their own gift and make it one of the top three gifts that they’re making to any nonprofit during their service on the board and say that straight up. Say, “We want the gift that you make to this organization to be one of the top three that you give this year to any nonprofit.”
And then on top of that I think we should be asking them to give their gift the first day of the fiscal year, so that we can for the rest of the year say we have a 100% board participation as donors in our organization and they’re modeling that behavior for the rest of the community, so early and significant. And then the second thing that I don’t think we emphasize enough is that we really need our board members to help us retain our top donors because we know that a little bit of emphasis from the board–a phone call, an email, a handwritten note from a board member–is going to do a lot more to retain our current high donors than just about anything else. And so we need to help them understand what that looks like and I’m going to talk about that more later on.
And then the third thing is to invite people into our tent. People that they may know who might be aligned with our work and then watch for lean ins, like who ask questions, who looks hungry for more information about the organization? Who comes to a reception or an open house and lingers at the end. So we’re not asking people to ask for money. We can discern later whether they’d be good volunteers or good donors, or potential sponsors or in-kind contributors or whatever, that doesn’t really matter.
The point is to be helping people who might be inclined toward our work, find us. I think that we should say unapologetically toward board members, look, offering people the opportunity to express their values by sustaining our work is one of the most powerful and impactful things that you can do as a board member. And we’re going to offer you several opportunities to do that through the year and we’ll give you all the support you need to succeed. And if you’re not up for doing that, maybe there’s another way that you can serve the organization, but that’s what we need from our board. So I think let’s be clearer with people.
And then I think we need to distinguish between the role of the board as a whole, as a body, and the role of board members as individuals because they have two different roles to play when they’re raising money. When we talk about the expectations of the board, I think that there are three sets and I’ll go to them here. One is the responsibility of the board as a whole and these things that are on your screen right now are nonnegotiable. These are legal. Like if you’re on a board, if you’re part of the board, this is what the board is required to do to keep your 501(c)(3) status.
And the ones that I cared about most in terms of fundraising are “provides financial oversight” and “set the budget” and “ensure adequate financial recourses.” So those three things belong to the board as a whole but then every single board member has certain things that we want everybody on the board to do, no matter whether you’re the secretary of state or a homeless mom, I mean a single mom. Every single board member does the same thing and I think we’re not seeing those distinct from the role of the board as a whole.
So here’s the kind of things that I want everybody to do, everybody needs to attend at least 10 out of 12 of our boards meetings during the year. Every single person needs to make a financial contribution whether it’s $5 or $5000, everybody needs to sit on a committee or chair one. Everybody needs to show up at our events and work the room and everybody needs to be talking about the organizations and the community.
So that’s what, then there are more, and there are more in my book or in my website, but those are the kinds of things that we ask everyone to do. And then I think it’s important to sit down with each board member individually and say each of us has different gifts to bring. What makes your heart sing? What are the things that you’re willing and able to do in the next year to bring our mission and our goals to life?
I like to actually call it a contract. And we sit down with each board member and we make a list of the things that they could do to further our fundraising and all of our other goals. So these are the kinds of things that I like to see on that form and there are samples in my book that they will make their own gift early in the year and they could do it however they want. Some board members want to be the first person to raise their paddle during the fund an item or fund the need thing at the auction. That’s fine. Let them do it there, as long as they make their pledge at the very beginning of the year so everybody makes their own gift in ways that suits them.
The next one is that they’re going to help us deepen relationships with people throughout the organization all throughout the year by doing things that we help them with. Another one is they’ll use their contacts to bring richness to the organization. Another one might be that they would host gatherings at home or at work or at the club, and there’s much more specificity on the ones that are in my book that you get where I’m going, so that each board member signs this contract and they turn it in and they keep a copy. And then just throughout the year we check in with them and we say, “Here’s the things that you agreed to do. How do you feel about the commitments that you made and how’s that going? What can we help you with?”
So are you offering that kind of clarity, because most of the organizations that I work with are not? And I think it’s really important that we have those three types of expectations set out that the board has a certain role as a whole: that’s planning and budgeting and ensuring resources, that they have a role as a generic board member, which is show up and take care of relationships, and that they have a job as a unique individual with particular gifts to share. I think we need to say all those things. Do the things that make your heart sing, things that you can do with ease and joy, and we need to say these things at recruitment and then again, throughout the year, over and over again, so everybody can nail that if I came in and ask them, what does this organization asking of you?
So we’re going to take just a few seconds right now in silence to think about what just came up in the last few minutes that I might want to act on or do something about change, talk to some people about. So just take a second to jot down what you might want to do differently as a result of this conversation.
So the second barrier I want to talk about today is how we use their time especially at board meetings. So I go to board meetings several times a week and I would rather eat rocks than be on some of these boards. Their meetings are so sucky. So just take a think about what’s on your board meeting agenda right now? Can you imagine? Is there a report on the executive director? Is there a finance report? Are there committee reports? Are there minutes? All of those things are one way communication. In my experience I see board members sitting there with their arms folded listening for most of the board meeting.
The most prevalent complaint if board members nationwide according to some Harvard researcher is that they’re not being used optimally. They feel like they have contacts and passion and skills and talents and excitement about the mission that they would like to bring to bear on behalf of the organization and they’re not being asked to do that. And I think that that complaint emerges from boring meetings. We don’t create board meetings that engage their whole selves. And the reason I’m talking about that here is that in my experience if the meetings are better the board members are more fired up to do fundraising.
So I have come up with six ingredients of a kick ass board meeting, something that I would want to go to. And several of my clients, I mean, hundreds of them actually, when we’ve changed up the board meeting agenda people have literally change their vacation schedules to make sure they don’t miss the board meeting because they’re so worthwhile. So I may go through these ingredients and I want you to think about how could you change your board meeting to be more engaging so the board members are excited about what’s going on there, enough to ask for money.
So the first thing is an opportunity to build community. And I really think this is important because in organizations where the board members don’t feel connected to one another, it’s easy for them to drop the ball and not do their reassignments because they don’t feel bad about letting down people that they don’t have a relationship with. So I think it’s really important to spend a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting connecting people to one another. One of the ways to do that is to make sure that there is always food at a board meeting. And I have spent an entire hour meetings talking about how to do food at board meetings because it’s a kind of robust conversation. But the important thing is that I think so, there’s something visceral that happens when we break bread together. And even if that means passing a bowl of pretzels or trail mix or popcorn or something like that, there’s something that happens that connects us to one another when we share food.
And it also is a gesture of reciprocity for volunteers who are taking time out of their busy lives to come and invest in the organization. So it’s just a gesture that says, “We’re glad you’re here. We appreciate your service.” So I would definitely make sure that you incorporate food into board meetings. And on my website which we’ll put up at the end, there’s a whole document on how to handle food at board meetings if you want to look at it.
The second thing is that I think we need to open every board meeting with an opportunity to hear every person’s voice, because I’m sure that at your board meeting there are the usual suspects who do all the talking and sometimes we’ll get through a whole board meeting without hearing one person’s voice. And so I like to open every board meeting with check-ins where everybody gets to go around, say their name again, and then answer some question and change the question every single meeting. So you might say what’s your favorite book? “What was your favorite movie?” “What was your favorite trip destination?” “What was your first car?” “What was your first concert and what did you wear to it?” and stuff like that.
There’s also a list on my website of questions that you can ask at the beginning of board meetings and change it up each time. So there A) people’s voices are heard, and B) you learned a little something about the other people in the room. So you might find people checking in with each other at the break or at the end of the board meeting saying, “Oh, I love Belize. I didn’t know you’ve been there too.” So asking people to check in at the beginning and just it only takes one minute, even if you have 25 people on the board, if you go around and answer, say your name and answer one question it only takes about a minute.
And the other thing is I’ve seen boards where people don’t actually know the names of the other people at the meeting, which scares me. So if we want people to be working on our behalf, we need to make sure they feel connected to one another and that sense of community.
The second thing is I think we need to have an inspiring reminder about what is our purpose, what are we trying to achieve in the world, why are we here? And so I’ve seen a lot of times where staff will bring a story of someone who’s been served or they’ll bring in a client or some beneficiary of our work, but again, I see board members leaned back with their arms folded when that happens. They’re not engaged. They’re just listening and they’re not even really paying attention.
But if we assign that job to a board member each meeting where they have to go find a story of someone who’s been served and they have to share it in a compelling enough way that their peers would listen, that story is going to stick in their hearts and their guts not just their heads and then you’re going to hear them hear it in some other context later in the year. And so I think it’s really important to have every single board member be assigned to a meeting, sometime during the year where they have to being the mission moment and share a one minute story not longer than that, a one minute story about how someone’s life has been affected or how the community has been affected by our work, and that reinforces people’s connection to the mission and it gives them a story to tell in the community and a reason to ask money.
The third thing is that I think we need to eliminate as much one way communication as we can from our board meetings because we’re asking these people to come and lead and then we spent a whole time talking at them. So I think we need to create opportunities for them to talk more about matters of consequence and talk less about the past. So I bet many of you are already using consent agendas at your board meetings but for those of you who aren’t it means that we send out all of the proforma stuff ahead of time. So every committee report, the executive director’s report, the treasury’s report, minutes, anything that is a easily ratified thing, this proforma, we send all that out ahead of time. It’s incumbent upon the board members to read it ahead of time and show up at the board meeting prepared to lead based on what they’ve already read.
So somebody had said at one point that consent agendas are to take the past out of the conversations, so we literally send out everything that’s happened to date and people use what’s already happened to inform conversations about the future. So listening to a report isn’t going to get, isn’t going to evoke any leadership, but if we send the reports ahead of time and use them to inform conversations about matters of consequence, people are going to be much more excited to participate in that. So there’s a whole article about consent agendas on my website too.
The next thing is to invest in the board members a little bit so that every single time they come to the board meeting they learn a little bit more about the field that we’re in. So a lot of times board members don’t really understand how demographic shifts in our community have affected our work or how economic shifts in the community have affected our work about how things are changing geographically in our community, about recent research in our field. So sometimes there are best practices being used in other markets and so sometimes it’s helpful to find out is there an organization like ours in another community that has done research on this or that has tried an innovative best practice and that we should be watching what they’re doing.
I think we should spend 15 or 20 minutes at every board meeting helping the board members understand our field better so that they can make more informed decisions as governors and it usually gives them something to talk about as a water cooler or as their soccer clubs or rotary meetings or something like that. It makes it sound cool. The other thing and sometimes my clients would flip-flop is they’ll have education one meeting and training the next, but the opportunity to build their skills their chops as a board member. So a lot of times I hear people complain, “Our board members don’t know how to work a room on our behalf.” “Our board members don’t know how to ask for money.” “Our board members don’t have an elector pitch.” “Our board members don’t know how to read the financial statements.”
Well, I think we should stop complaining about that and build it in to a meeting where everybody is there in the room. And sometimes the board members who have been on for a really long time are no better than the brand new board members. They don’t know how to read the financial statement any more than new people do. So I think it’s important to build training into every single board meeting or every other board meeting so that we’re investing in their ability to govern our organizations better. And it makes them smarter and more capable of being on the next boards that they’re on too. So it’s not just an investment in our own organization, it’s an investment in the sector to help these people be better governors across the board.
Then the other thing, if you imagine that those first four, five things that I brought up takes 30 minutes out of the meeting, then that gives us a whole hour, and 90 minutes is a . . . research is it’s optimal length of a board meeting. It gives us a whole hour to sink our teeth into something meaty and juicy and exciting and maybe even controversial. So I think that we should build board meetings so that there’s at least an hour of some really robust conversation where people can lean forward, maybe even argue with each other and come up with something exciting.
So there’s a whole construct in this book called “Governance as Leadership” about how there are different modes that board members offer again. One is called fiduciary, where they’re thinking about budgets and risk and legal compliance and so on. Strategic, where they’re thinking about goals setting and planning and positions to take on a bill or something and then there’s generative, where they’re actually suspending fiduciary and strategic and thinking broadly and expansively about the issue in the community and how can we think about it in new and more robust ways.
And so I think we need to make way more time in our board meetings for conversations about strategic issues and generative issues so that they can sink their teeth into governance and actually help us lead the organizations. Because governance needs to be about strategic goals and oftentimes we don’t even know what those goals are.
Sometimes when they say to people, “Well, let’s have your, governance as part of the meeting, be about your strategic goals, what are they?” And nobody can nail them. Nobody can tell me what the strategic priories are for that organization. Why not? Well, maybe there aren’t any. That’s often the case. Sometimes all they have is, they call it a strategic plan but it’s really a business plan, an operations plan and it’s 20 pages long or maybe some small group took away the strategic planning process and did it and then impose the goals on everybody else and they don’t really own them.
Or there are so many other reasons, but I think one of the reasons is, the main reason is that we’re no using the goals to shape our board meeting agendas. And if we did they would remember what they were. So imagine a board meeting where the only items on the agenda were the strategic priorities and that’s all you talked about. And if anybody wanted to bring anything else up during the board meeting you’d say to them, “Well, how does that further one of our strategic priorities. If you can justify that, then we’ll put it on the agenda, otherwise, we’re not.” So imagine scheduling out for several months, different topics so that people know that they have time to study up on them, maybe a taskforce is working on them in between the meetings and so on. And they show up at the board meeting really ready to sink their teeth into something that’s of consequence.
So I think our board members are going to be more invested in accomplishing our goals and therefore, more willing to ask if we take the time at board meetings to talk about them. So let’s focus our board meeting time on the role of the board and board members in achieving those goals, because lots of times I see at board meetings I’ll show up and they’ll all look at the executive director and they’ll say, “So how you’re doing on the strategic plan?” Like it’s the executive director’s responsibility to achieve the whole thing and they act like they don’t have a role in it.
We need to distinguish between the role of the boards and the role of the staff in achieving the strategic goals and make sure that the board meeting is focused on the board role maybe even with deliverables that they’re responsible for a year from now, so name the deliverables for both parties spend board meeting time on the board role in achieving the goals.
So my whole second point was that we need to spend more time on the strategic goals and use our time better at board meetings so that people will be more excited about raising money for the things that we’re talking about. So that was a lot. I just threw out a whole bunch of ideas. So I’m going to give you a second in silence to think about what might we do differently, what might I want to talk to some other people about, about that last segment.
So now, we’ve talked about the importance of clarifying expectations and using board meeting time more strategically so that they’re excited to raise money about those things. And the third barrier that I want to talk about is that we haven’t shown them how they fit in our fundraising strategy. They don’t even know there is one. The title of the chapter in my book is called “The Fundraising Strategy is Ill-defined.” So board members don’t engage with our fundraising strategy because, A) they don’t even know we have one, and B) they don’t understand where they can have maximum impact on it.
So if I ask you right now, if I were at your board meeting and I said, “Do you guys . . . what’s your fundraising strategy? Could you articulate it?” I think it’s really important for us to be able to articulate our fundraising strategy not just what we do. So when I ask people what is your fundraising strategy, they almost always say, “Well, we have an event in the fall and we do an email thing during Give Big or we send out a direct mail appeal during blah, blah.” That’s not a strategy. Those are occasions. Those are methods. They’re tactics. And I think that board members don’t really understand that there is a strategy or that there should be one and they don’t understand how board members should engage optimally in it.
So I’m going to give you five fundamentals that I think board members need to totally own in their heads, in their hearts, and in their guts, so that if I showed up six months from now and ask your board members what your strategy was, they would totally nail these things. And I think sometimes we are the reason why they don’t know these things, because we haven’t made them clear ourselves. Are you ready? Here we go.
The first one is that a lot of times board members think that the answer is grants and corporate money, and they need to understand that most of the money in the nonprofit sector comes from people not from the government, not from grants, not from corporations or foundations, it’s really from people. So the latest research that I’ve seen has said 4% of nongovernment money is coming from corporations, 6% from foundations, and 8% from bequests where people die and leave us money. And all the rest is coming from individuals. So if you consider that the bequests are dead individuals and the rest is live individuals that means that 90% of our nongovernment money is coming from people.
So board members want, they keep looking at staff and saying “Go get more grants, go approach some companies,” and that’s not the answer. So they really need to understand that individuals are the main and most sustainable source of funding. The second thing that they need to understand is that the people who are going to give us the most money already know us. We already have a relationship with them. Some of them are deeper, some of them are more external, but they’re all connected to us already.
There are no external saviors who are going to rescue us. So the white knights who are going to give us the most money are insiders. The sources of the most money, and this has been proven over and over and over again are our board, our staff, our volunteers, anyone how has benefited directly from our work and our current donors. Board, staff, volunteers, beneficiaries, current donors. That’s where all the money is and people keep wanting to move out to people that don’t know us yet and ask them for money, and they really need to understand that our most important prospect pools are the people who are in the middle, in the core, or people who have been there in the recent past.
So maybe we should focus more energy on bringing back former board members, former staff, former volunteers, people who benefitted from this in the past and lapsed donors. So research shows that it’s 10 times cheaper to bring a lapsed donor back than it is to go acquire a new donor. But there’s this weird thing where we were like addicted to acquisition and we keep thinking we need to get new donors. So board members need to understand that it’s way more important for us to retain the current people we’ve got and bring back old people like former people. And then there are other in our midst who also have a relationship with us already like our vendors and professionals who do work with us like who refers people to our organization, who do we refer people to, who were the attorneys in our field, who are the academics in our field, who are the legislators who work heavily in our field and so on.
And then friends and family of the people in our core constituencies and people who have been tangentially served or secondarily served by us. So earlier I said beneficiaries, direct beneficiaries are in the core, so say that you’re an arts organization that means that that’s your season ticket holders or your, yeah, your season ticket holders. And then the second circle out would be people who have been to one concert or play who were comped in, came with a friend, so they’re connected to us but not as deeply as the people in the middle. So we’ve got a lot of those people who have been tangentially served or indirectly served by your organization and we need to focus more attention on them than on new people.
And here’s another little pet peeve, we tell our board members to go after friends for money and I really think that’s a mistake because oftentimes they’re filling butts in seats at our events with people who don’t really give a rip about our mission. They’re just there to fill a table. When what we really need is to be filling the room with people who are on fire about the work we’re doing so that when that board member leaves we keep the donor. So stop asking our board members to ask their friends for money and ask them to help us bring back lapsed donors or people who are professionally affiliated with our work or whatever. The people who are going to give us the most money are not our friends. they are the people that are fired up about the work that we’re doing.
So here’s the third fundamental concept that I want our board members to know. The retention of the people who have already been affiliated with us is way more important than going to get new people. So as I mentioned I think we’re all addicted to acquisition and I don’t know, there’s something exciting about going and finding something new and shiny when the people who have already been in our organization are feeling betrayed and flicked off and we’re not paying enough attention to them, we’re not thanking them deeply for their support, we’re not showing them the impact of their support, and we’re not engaging them authentically in the organization’s work. We’re not deepening their relationship with the work.
So if our board members knew that their primary job was to help us connect people who are already in our tent, in our tribe, connect them more deeply to the work so they can have authentic connections with the mission, that’s way more important than going to get new people. The fourth major concept that I want our board members to understand is that relationship building is way more important than asking. So sometimes when I ask organizations what their fundraising strategy is the only things I hear are ask opportunities.
So they say “We have an event here, a mail drop here, an email thing here, workplace campaign thing here,” and all they’re talking about is hard ask, hard ask, hard ask, and what we really want to see is a fundraising strategy that is 90% about deepening someone’s connection to the work and 10% about asking. And I think that those of us who are doing this work are actually guilty of this because when anyone talks to us about our work we talk about the asking opportunity and we don’t talk about the deep importance of cultivation and stewardship. So I think our board members need to understand this and then we need to back that up with how we spend our time with them and the things that we talk about.
The final fundamental concept that I want our board members to embrace is we need to spend way more time and energy on things that don’t cost very much money. So if I go into a board meeting and I say, “What’s your biggest fundraising thing that you do all yearlong?” They mention an event. And events are the most expensive way there is to raise a dollar. We really need to be thinking strategically about are we using those events optimally. Because maybe it’s more important to be having way smaller gatherings like literally 20 people in a living room or 15 or 10 people in the living room instead of 500 people in a ballroom because it costs us way less money to deepen those people’s connection to the work and then money will emerged automatically from that, organically from that, rather than having this big galas and big fun runs and things that kill us when we’re doing them.
So it’s way less expensive to connect with people, invite their ownership of our work. One of the things that I love doing is having a board member who’s really deeply tied to an event, run the numbers on the cost per dollar raised for that event including human capital. So if you say roll in all the board member time, staff member time, and volunteer time that it takes to do that event. Think about the opportunity cost of that. We could take all of those people’s hours and put them on major donor stewardship we would raise so much more money.
So one time I was asking this guy who is deeply wedded to a golf tournament, I asked him to run the numbers for a retreat where we were doing planning, and he realized that were actually losing money on the golf tournament every year by the time you factored in people time. And it came to the board retreat and he said, “You guys, we have to stop doing that golf tournament. We’re losing money on it.” And the rest of us were like, “Yay!” Because the golf tournament was really a time suck.
So let’s look at how much it really cost us to do each of the efforts that we’re engaged in and focus the board members on the things that cost the least which is usually about being in one on one or small group contact with people especially our major donors. So my third point was about clarifying our fundraising strategy and showing leaders how they can have the biggest impact on that. Imagine a strategy that looks like this. We’re focusing our retention, or focusing on retention of our largest, most recent donors, by engaging them more authentically using the lowest cost effort. Well, that tells boards members exactly what they should be doing to have major impact on the organizations and fundraising.
So again, that was kind of a lot of information in a quick period of time, so I’m going to give a few seconds to just think about that. What might we do differently, how can we talk about this stuff differently with our board members. Jot down some notes.
So to recap I think it’s our responsibility to remove the barriers, 10 of which are in my book, that keep board members from being all they can be on our behalf. They want to be passionate, they want to be joyful, they want to be successful fundraisers and we’re actually in their way. One of the ways where in their way is by not clarifying expectations, one is that we’re not engaging them in real authentic leadership, and one is that the fundraising strategy hasn’t been made clear to them, so they don’t know how they can be most effective. And if we who are on this call help remove those barriers, our board members that are going to participate with more vigor and more impact.
So I know that I just said a lot of stuff. Anyway, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that will help you lean into this content on my website. So there are a whole bunch of Word documents and a whole bunch of videos, the videos are on the front page of susanhowlett.com. On the bottom left there’s a Vimeo channel that you can click on. And there are a whole bunch of videos there. And then on the “Boards on Fire” resources tab on my website there are a whole bunch of more videos that talk about the kinds of things that we’ve been mentioning here. So go there afterwards or sometime when you’re on work-avoidance mode and check those out. And then I also want to draw your attention to the latest edition, the sixth edition of my other book which is a grant-writing book. It’s been the most widely used grant-writing book text in the country for over 40 years. And new edition just came out this year.
I want to thank you for paying attention all this time and I hope that you’ve got some useful nuggets out of this content. But for now let’s take some questions, so Steven, back to you.
Steven: Awesome, I definitely got some useful nuggets. I even have a board meeting this afternoon for my nonprofits, so I want to do a lot of things differently than I might have done two hours ago. So awesome, that was really great, Susan. I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I did. I’ve got some crazy notes and I’m going to run out and get some pretzels or Chex Mix on extra something because I really love the idea of sharing food. I feel bad that I hadn’t offered that before.
Well, we could have a lot of great questions here. I think you definitely got people’s gears turning, Susan. So I think we’ve got about maybe 10 or 12 minutes for questions, so if you have not asked a question, please do because we might be able to get to it in the time we have remaining.
So I’m just going to kind of go down the list here, Susan, and I’ll read the questions, so everyone knows what’s going on, but there’s a question here from Chandra. She is a new ED, they have board members that preceded her so she kind of inherited board members and they were not asked to engage in fundraising. So she’s trying to do all the things that you recommended but some of those older members that she inherited they don’t really feel like it replies to them or they should be doing this. What advice would you have for many board members that you inherited that you want to institute all these things for?
Susan: So the first thing . . . I have a line that I use a lot which is the landscape has changed. So the way that they were recruited doesn’t work anymore because donors and the rest of our key stakeholders are asking for different things of our leaders in just the last few years. And so whatever the expectations were that were articulated when they were recruited don’t apply anymore. So that’s one thing that I would say is that the landscape has changed and we have to morph with it.
The other thing I would do is bring in somebody who is a peer board member from another highly functional board in your community, someone that they admire and have that board member say, “Yeah, we use to think that too but we’ve moved to the other side. We’re doing these new things and it’s way better and safer over here so come and join us.” So you’re inviting them into new behavior that a peer from another highly functioning organization has said was okay.
Steven: Right, yeah, that makes sense. Here’s more of a comment from Nancy. I’m curious of what you think. When you mentioned board contract, Susan, Nancy said that she uses the term “personal action plan” rather than contract. What do you think of that? She thought it would be less threatening. Any opinion on what you actually call it?
Susan: Yeah. In fact, I’ve gotten pushed back from lawyers on boards who said this is really not a contract. It’s not legally binding.” And I thought, “Well, then it should be morally binding.” So I’m part of an organization that has sort of rules of engagement for the board and we call it a covenant, a covenant of right relations and we all find it and we say we commit to doing these things with one another on behalf of the organization. And if we break the covenant in any way, then we encourage other people to call us on that.
So there are lots of things that we can call it. I think a covenant might be a little churchy for some people but call it whatever like. I think it’s important to have people sign it. Keep a copy and have the organization have the copy so that they feel like it’s real. I think sometimes we have many put a piece of paper in front of people and just gone over it personally and not really said we are counting on you to do this things, and if you don’t some ball is going to get dropped and we’re not going to be successful. I think we haven’t connected that between the expectation and the impact they have.
Steven: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. Here’s one from Trisha. She’s a relatively new nonprofit and she says they’re almost desperate for board members. It looks like they’re putting together a board for the first time. What’s the best way to identify those new board members when there have never been any in the organization’s history maybe because you just didn’t or it’s a brand new organization?
Susan: Well, our inclination is we’d invite our friends in first, but oftentimes those times don’t have deep board experience on highly functioning board and so we end up making a lot of mistakes because we’re all learning. And so I would actually bring in some people who have deep board experience in the community and say to them, “I need you to be on this board to model best practices for the organization at its early stages.”
So I would look at rotary clubs, other professional associations, other service clubs, other highly functioning mature organizations, maybe people from the community foundation or something, and tell them I know you’re used to being with more sophisticated, more highly evolved organizations in this, and it may not be fun the first year because we’re just taking baby steps but you could be setting us up for huge success down the road if you invest a year or so in this organization’s health at the front end.
Susan: So I would bring in seasoned people early on and find them like I said in a professional association service clubs and other highly functioning organizations.
Steven: Cool. Here’s one from Gayle. Gayle is asking how do you point . . . what advice do you have for boards members who are maybe joining remotely so they’re not actually in the city or state that your nonprofit operates in. They’re still valuable board members. Any experience in engaging remote board employees? Should you avoid remote board members entirely? Or are they okay in some situations?
Susan: That’s so hard. I’ve had a couple of clients like this in resort towns where the people only live their part of the year but the board members have money and they have passion. They’re just not there all the time. And it’s so hard because it’s demoralizing for the people who are in the room at the board meeting to either have only a few people there or have other people Skyping in or something, because it’s just not as much fun.
But I know that in some organizations we have to do that. Statewide organization are the same or people from remote areas, you have to have people from other town on the board. And I actually don’t have any good examples of how to make that work. I hate it myself, but I know that it’s essential. Sometimes we’ll put on the board expectations that you have to be present for 10 out of the 12 board meetings during the year and if it’s not possible for you, then maybe you should be on an advisory board or a counsel of advisers or something and not on the board of directors, because it’s really like I said demoralizing for everybody else to only have a handful of people in the room and some other people on the phone.
Sorry, I don’t have a better answer for that.
Steven: That’s a hard one. Here’s another hard one, but I think you’re up to a task. I really loved your advice, by the way, of not asking for a flat amount from all board members. Rita, I think followed up on that question during that segment. She’s wondering how do you kind of define that amount per person without, you know, asking them for their checking account balance or salary, annual salary, how do you kind of find that amount that is significant to them but won’t insult them by being too low or freaked them out by being too high?
Susan: So I don’t think anybody needs to know what the number is. The way that I like to say this is, well, there are two things I have to suggest. One is when my husband and I were the leaders of the PTA at our kid’s school we suggested that every family in the school contribute what they earned in a day. So there were some single moms who are on welfare and they gave what they, you know, if you parsed out there monthly allotment what was their one day amount. And then there were some families that has two practicing physicians in them. So if they gave what they earned in a day it was sort of prorated, right? So that’s one way to think about it. It’s like what do you earn in a day? And if everybody on the board gave that or something like that or 10 times that, that would be good.
Another way to think about it is I like you have one board member take another board member out for coffee and sit across the table from them and say, “I really appreciate all of the stuff that you have done for this organization over the last year. I love that auction item that you gave last year, that was so fun, and that policy that you suggested in the summer was really insightful and it’s really helping us move forward. Now I’m asking you to make a gift, a financial contribution that is big enough that you have to go home and talk to your family about how you’re going to pay it off. Are you going to transfer stock? Are you going to make monthly installments? Are you going to ask your whole family to join you so you can make a gift that’s significant?
And when you out it like that I like to say to people, I want you to make a financial contribution to this board, to this organization that manifest to those who are close to you that this is a priority in your life, that this is something you value deeply enough to make a model gift. And no one has to know how much it is. It’s like in your heart have you made a gift that is really significant to you? And I think that’s how we do that.
But one of the problems I see is that we do a ya’ll-come invitation at a board meeting and just say we want everybody to make a significant gift. Okay, next on the agenda, you know? Like that, that’s, yeah.
Steven: Right, right.
Susan: And so it’s not very honorable, honorific, but if each person is approached by another person and they’re asked to make something is deep enough that you have to go home and talk to your family about it, that will get better gift.
Steven: Right. Yeah, I love it, and I love having another board member ask another board member. I love that. We’ve got probably got a question or time for maybe one or two more questions. A lot of people who have asked about just sort of some brass tacks type things, people asking about nametags, seating people alphabetically, other ideas for activities during meeting. What do you feel about those things or do you think it should be just . . . and I love your idea of people going around the room in the beginning and just saying their name again and saying, you know, maybe telling a story or answering a question. Is your advice to not have policies like nametags or seating assignments or would you just kind of leave it to the individual board?
Susan: Well, if everyone’s in-person I think it’s important to have name tents in front of everybody and someone like I would actually have the organization’s mission on the back of the tent so the board member is looking at the mission of their own name tents which is kind of fun. And so I think name tents are good. Nametags can be hard if people are far away from each other. They can’t see the nametag and sometimes people don’t like to have this thing stuck to their clothes. But name tents are good and I really admire people who breakup the little cliques that happen on boards by having, moving the name tents around so they’re at the table when people arrive. And you’re breaking up the people who always sit with each other and whisper and pass notes and giggle like teenagers.
Steven: Good idea.
Susan: So mix it up every single time if you can.
Steven: Here’s one last question. We can stop here. There’s so many good ones. And Susan, I’m going to flash your website address again just in case people want to reach out. I assume that’s okay, you’d be willing to answer questions maybe by email later on.
Susan: Do that.
Steven: Cool, because I know there’s a lot we’re not getting to. One last question for Gayle, kind of a downer question but important nonetheless, what about voting off members? You know, term limits, maybe even having a vote to have board members removed if maybe they don’t show up to meetings or whatever. How do you kind of deal with that whole issue of maybe removing people who aren’t, just are not participating or contributing, delivering, yeah, absolutely?
Susan: Well, that’s a common question that I get as a consultant because people are worried about the dead wood on their board, and I suggest that they read “Boards on Fire” first and realize that part of the reason why people are dead wood is because the board meeting suck. And that we’re not engaging people optimally in the meetings so why would they come, you know?
Susan: If all they’re doing is sitting there listening to people and they’re not being asked for their advice or their heart and soul to be engaged, then it’s our fault, not there’s.
Susan: So the first thing I would do is make sure that our board meetings get amp up to the point where people would acutely want to be there. Another thing that I run into is sometimes people they’ve recruited for diversity and so they’ve got one African-American person, one Native American person, one Asian person on the board, and then they say to me, “Well those people just aren’t delivering.” And I think, well, maybe it’s because they don’t feel engaged in this board.
Everybody else is not like them, so is someone taking them out for drinks after the board meeting or is someone asked them for coffee in between board meetings, is someone picking them up to go to committee meetings together? You know, it could be that part of the reason why some people aren’t delivering optimally is that they feel external somehow that they haven’t been fully integrated into the whole organization. They don’t feel like these are my people. I belong here.
So we really need to go out of our way to make sure that every single person on the board has been offered that opportunity to engage deeply which isn’t always the case. Then when it is time to retire people, and I was actually on a board one time where they instituted board term limits to get rid of me because I’d been there for too long. I was the founder. I was one of the people who said, “Well, we’ve always done it this way, or we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work.” So they actually did term limits to get rid of me. So I think those are really good idea. But the other thing that I’d like to do is have, earlier I gave a slide some slides that said about the commitment form. I think it’s better six months during the year to go back to a board member and say, “Here are the thing that you signed up for at the beginning of the year. How do you feel about how you’re doing on this commitment?”
And you let them say, “Well, I guess I’m not pulling my weight.” And then you ask them “Can you tell us why that is? Do you hate the board chair or the committee chair that you’re on?” If something changed at home, your job or something, ask them what they need for support in order to offer more value. And if they aren’t, if they don’t ask for more support or they don’t ask for assistance change to make them feel more successful, then I would say, “It’s not bad to just go away. There are other people lined up who want to be on this board. And you don’t have to stick out your term if you’re not having a good time.”
One of my clients actually asked people, “Are you having fun here, because if you’re not having fun, you don’t have to be here.” And so that’s another good question to ask people.
Steven: So give them kind of the out rather than doing it for them?
Susan: Yeah, don’t point fingers and blame because it’s often not their fault that they’re not delivering.
Steven: Yeah, I guess that’s true. We’re too hard on board members perhaps? Well, Susan this was great . . .
Steven: Absolutely. We’re right up, again it’s 2:00. This was awesome I really enjoyed this. I’m going to put these things into a practice immediately for my 3:30 p.m. board meeting. I know everyone else enjoyed it as well. We’re getting some great comments and chats there, so Susan thanks so much for hanging out with us for an hour, so.
Susan: Yeah, my pleasure. And I’m happy to answer questions after we get off, so feel free to shoot me an email or whatever. And Steven, I look forward to seeing you I Chicago next week at the Storytelling Conference.
Steven: Yes. I will see you there Friday. Hopefully, I’ll see some of you listening as well. If you don’t have your ticket shoot me an email or respond to my invitation or just email me, email@example.com. I got some coupons codes to make that bill a little less large for that conference. So again, thanks to all of you for listening. I know it’s a busy time of year so for you to take an hour out of your day in this yearend
We’re going to take next week off but we are back two weeks from tomorrow. We’re going to talk about compliance which I know it sounds a little dry and kind of boring but really important as we’re going to be entering tax time. If you’re a little bit worried about your own sort of financial compliance or maybe just want a refresher, check out this webinar. Mike Montali is a nonprofit finance expert and we’re going to talk all about compliance.
We’ve got some other webinars scheduled through the end of the year just check out our webinar page, you can schedule or register for those and we’d love to see again in some week. So look for an email for me later on this afternoon, I’ll send out the slides and the recording, and we hope to see you again on another Bloomerang webinar. So have a great rest of your afternoon and a great rest of your week and we’ll talk to you again soon.