How do you keep your board members engaged with fundraising and other supportive activities?

In this video, Amy Eisenstein interviews nationally recognized nonprofit founder and thought leader Rachel Muir, who shares some great advice about how to keep nonprofit board members engaged and accountable so they will fully support your organization with fundraising and more.

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Full Transcript:

Amy: Hi, I’m Amy Eisenstein and I’m absolutely thrilled today to have my friend and colleague Rachel Muir here with us. Rachel has an amazing background. She founded Girlstart and because of what she did with Girlstart, an organization to help girls with STEM, she raised over $10 million and appeared on Oprah, CNN and The Today Show. She is just amazing. And now she works with boards. She’s an international speaker and I am so thrilled to have her here. Hi, Rachel.

Rachel: Hi, Amy. Thanks for having me.

Amy: Thanks for being here. So, today we’re going to talk about boards and all that they entail. So, let’s get started. Why do you think your board members aren’t fundraising and can you talk a little bit about that?

Rachel: I’m glad you asked that. That is the number on complaint that I hear people have about their boards, that, “My board members aren’t fundraising.” I think the number one reason why this goes wrong is because expectations aren’t set from the get-go.

Amy: Good point.

Rachel: You’ve either got a board member that’s recruiting a new board member and they’re downplaying the expectation of service or you may have just not properly set them from the beginning. If you think about it, we’re really doing our board members a disservice to not be clear and upfront about the obligations of service. You wouldn’t take a job if you didn’t see the job description and if you didn’t have a really thorough interview process. You wouldn’t step into that not knowing what you were signing up for.

The thing about fundraising and boards is that it isn’t one size fits all. People are different, right? Some people are introverted. Some people are extroverted. I am a big advocate of having a board contract that lists all the ways that board members can support fundraising, from making a stretch gift, supporting the annual fund, making a planned gift, hosting a cultivation event, thanking donors. Think about it and challenge yourself to literally what are the 30 ways that board members can support fundraising because then your board members will pick five or seven things that speak to them and that work for them.

One of the most frustrating things that I see going wrong with boards is passing out a list of prospects that the organizations want to get to know better and asking board members to sign their name next to people they know. That doesn’t work for people. They’re going to feel like they’re going to be hitting someone up. They don’t feel comfortable with that. They need a real diversity of ways that they can support fundraising and they can pick what works best for them and then own it and be accountable to it.

Amy: Good. Tell me. Let’s talk about how to keep those board members accountable.

Rachel: Have them sign up, not just sign up for fundraising, but sign up for the programs. What programs am I not going to go? What programs am I going to attend? And then send it back to them and send them calendar appointments for the events and the galas and the things they sign up for.

But I’m a big fan of really nurturing board members throughout their experience. When you take a job, you go through a robust interview process, you know what you’re getting into, you talk to other people who work there. We can talk to other board members. We can really have a robust process and then have like a 30-60-90-day check-in, “How is this going? How is service? Is it what you thought this was?”

Amy: Oh, I love that, asking them questions about how it’s going.

Rachel: Yeah.

Amy: I don’t think that most nonprofits ask their board members for feedback.

Rachel: Exactly.

Amy: I think at a minimum annually. But do check in with your board members, “How is this experience going for you and what should we be doing differently?” Great point.

Rachel: I also like the idea of giving board members a board buddy so that they’ve got someone that is a role model board member setting the right expectations that they can check in with. It is one of the toughest jobs an executive director will ever have is leading their board of directors because it’s all about managing up and it’s somewhat about herding cats because these are all volunteers and it takes a lot of energy and motivation, but we’ve got to find out what are board members’ motivation for serving and play to those strengths. We’ve got to praise them. We’ve got to nurture them. We’ve got to train them.

As a trainer, the number one place where I see organizations falling down is expecting a lot of their board members, but never giving them any training. They don’t come out of the box knowing how to fundraise or feeling comfortable fundraising and they need some help to get there. That’s a really great investment that you can make in your board of directors.

Amy: Yeah. I think it’s not just training once a year at a board retreat, but ongoing.

Rachel: Absolutely.

Amy: Every board meeting, there should be 10-15 minutes of training set aside. Instead of reading a boring development report, why not do an interactive activity, discussion or mini-training so that you’re training your board members all year long?

Rachel: Absolutely. I encourage people to think about your board retreat and think about all of the creative, out of the box things that you do at your retreat, fun icebreakers, splitting up into groups to solve a problem. Try to take a miniature version of one of those activities into your board meeting and just do a 15-minute brainstorm or group activity.

Or also like you, I’m a big fan of having board members call donors to thank them at the beginning of the board meeting, just give them five minutes to break out and call and thank donors. I’m a big fan of giving them a script to make it easy and give them some background on the donor and some great questions to ask the donor should they be lucky enough to actually get the donor on the phone.

Amy: All right. Good. So, what are some tips and takeaways that our viewers can start implementing right away? What are your parting words, tools that they can use?

Rachel: Well, my parting word would be . . . I talk to a lot of organizations and they’re like, “I don’t have this rock star contract, your sample board contract, I didn’t have it. What do I do now?” I tell people your board is always evolving. Your board is always growing. And it’s organic. It’s a group of people, you’re always getting new members on. It’s always changing and evolving.

Board assessments are a fantastic tool that you can use to make some shifts in your board. Board assessments are a great tool for you to use to make some changes and introduce a different board contract, step people up with more engagement and help prune the dead weight or enhance attrition to really allow board members who service for them isn’t working anymore.

Amy: Let me stop you for one second. I love that term, enhance attrition because organizations I work with are always afraid, “We’re going to offend these board members and they’re going to leave.” I say, “Well, what are they doing for you?” And the answer is often nothing.

Rachel: Exactly.

Amy: So, what’s the problem. Let’s get them off and thank them for their service.

Rachel: Exactly.

Amy: We’re not going to be mean about it, but thank them for the service and say, “We’re going to make room for people who are excited and who do have the time and energy to help us out right now.” But to your earlier point, I think it’s never too late to start.

Rachel: Exactly.

Amy: If you’re at an organization where you feel like, “We haven’t done this. Our board is sort of a mess.” This is the year that you’re going to start implementing, whether you call it a board member contract, I call it a board member expectation form. Mine is simple. It’s a one-page sheet. It does say, “What are you going to give? What committees do you want to serve on? How are you going to help with fundraising?” It gives choices exactly like what you were describing. To me, keep it simple.

Rachel: Exactly.

Amy: But provide them with options.

Rachel: Yeah.

Amy: Any last parting words?

Rachel: Just another great buzzword like enhancing attrition is graceful exits. I like what you said about this isn’t working out. If you’re in that situation where it’s time to say goodbye to a board member, assessments are a great tool to help expedite that process and introduce change and improve structures.

But if you’re in that situation, I would say it doesn’t matter who made the mistake, if it was you downplaying the expectations of service or a board member, eat crow, take responsibility. This is about them leaving with grace and gratitude and dignity and a warm appreciation for their service.

The more that you implement tools to support your board and check in with your board and give them board mentors, the more successful you’re going to be in really having the best talent and nurturing that talent. But don’t be afraid of having a difficult conversation and approach it with it feels like this isn’t working out right now. What can we do?

Amy: Well, I just take the board contract or the board expectation form back to them and say, “Look, these are the things you said you’d be able to do. It doesn’t seem like you’ve been able to do them this year. Is this still a board you want to serve on?” or, “Is this right for you right now?” I sort of throw it back on them sometimes. And then they can decide whether or not they’re going to be able to fulfill their responsibility.

But I also like to tell organizations that you tell your board members, “Look, we’re going to grow and we want you to grow with us, but that means more responsibility and more help. If you’re not ready to do that right now, then we need to thank you for your service and find board members that are.” It’s really about not staying the same. I think wherever you are, wherever your board is, you can say, “All right, this is our year. We’re going to make that leap.”

So, listen, it’s been so great talking to you. Thank you so much for joining me today. We loved having you. I can’t wait to see you soon.

Rachel: Awesome.

Amy: Thanks, Rachel.

Rachel: Thank you.

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.