Five Tips: Engage Your Board in Major Gifts Fundraising

Practical Ideas and Tools

By Mary Kaufman-Cranney, CFRE, Vice President

While presenting at a recent AFP lunch meeting, I asked the audience, “How many of you have at least a few board members engaged in your major gift fundraising efforts?” Not to my surprise, only a handful of the more than 100 fundraisers in the room raised their hands. Then I asked, “How many of your board members are passionate about your mission?” As you would imagine, everyone in the room raised their hand! So, how do we turn that passion into fundraising action? Here are a handful of tips and tools to get results:

#1 Bring your mission to life! According to a recent study conducted by BoardSource, the leading organization focused on strengthening and supporting nonprofit board leadership, 64% of board chairs and 67% of nonprofit executives state the most important area for boards to improve upon is in fundraising. Strong understanding of programs is linked to stronger engagement, strategy, and external leadership — including fundraising. It is our job as development professionals in partnership with the executive director/CEO to help address this issue. But how? It starts with creating passion for your mission.

  • Identify your advocate(s): Get a board member or two to be your advocate(s) for engaging other board members in the mission and fundraising. The advocates’ job is to deliver the messages to the board so it’s not coming from just the professional staff. You and your executive team can multiply your impact by enlisting these key board members and discussing with them ideas that will help increase board engagement and ultimately fundraising. Tip: Have ideas ready, but let it flow and together pick three ideas to get started with.
  • Educate at every board meeting: Provide an education session on your services/programs at every board meeting. But don’t just present, identify a question or two that board members can be a part of the discussion, such as:
    • How can we talk about the outcomes of this program with our donors?
    • What are ways in which we can engage more volunteers in this program?
    • How do we make the most of our volunteers?

It doesn’t have to take a lot of time, but it should be meaningful. Every presentation should include the specific community need that’s being addressed, how the service/program is making a difference, what the charitable need is to run the program, and if/how it leverages other funding.

  • Create an engagement series. Ask your board members what they most want to learn about in your nonprofit and then create 3-4 one or two-hour engagement activities throughout the year. Your advocate(s) can lead this series and ask every board member to commit to attend at least two of the offerings. These activities can be as easy as a discussion with your executive director/CEO about the details of a program and what the future challenges of the program are.

#2 Develop your board members into ambassadors – not fundraisers. According to Susan Howlett’s book Boards on Fire many board members have deep-seated resistance to fundraising. However, we can remove the barriers and make fundraising joyful. It first starts with recruitment and clarifying roles as well as expectations for fundraising and giving, but there is more you can do with your existing board members to get them to be a part of the fundraising team.

  • Clarify their role: In each board member’s orientation, make sure their role as ambassador to the organization is clear and there are clear expectations of what they each need to do to carry out their role. Haven’t been doing orientations as board members come on board? Or it’s been awhile since your board members have reviewed their responsibilities? Bring out the board job description, and in partnership with your advocate(s), board chair and executive director/CEO, freshen it up to include the role of ambassador. Then use a half hour at the board meeting to review and discuss. Led by the chair or valued leader, ask board members to give examples of how they are performing in each area of the job description (Tip: set them up in advance). Have an advocate lead a discussion on how the board can do a better job in meeting their role as ambassadors.
  • Create an engagement plan: Each board member should have a written plan for the year of how they will support their role for the organization. The plan can ask a few simple questions and commitments for the year, such as:
    • Personal giving: What will inspire you to give more? Who at the organization would you like to spend more time with?
    • Fundraising ideas: Will you host an event at your home? Invite friends to see what we are doing? Host a tour?
    • Prospect cultivation: Identify 2-3 individuals who you will bring to an event or tour to learn more about our organization.
    • Resources: What do you need from the Development team to be more successful?

  • Build a team by making it social: According to BoardSource, social time together has a direct correlation to a board working as a collaborative team with a shared goal. The board works better when they know and trust each other. Then they become the ones saying to each other, “We need to do more to carry out the mission!” You can accomplish this by creating social opportunities around the board meetings or other special times. One idea that worked well for me as a development director at an organization is “fireside chats.” We asked 3-4 board members to host a dinner or cocktail chat around a program topic or area of need in the community. We offered several, all within the same month on different days so that everyone could attend just one with 8-10 people attending including significant others. It was amazing – everyone signed up! A couple staff attended each event to help with logistics, but otherwise this was just for the board.

#3 Ensure every board member makes a personally significant gift each year. There are lots of step-by-step tools to make this happen, but back to #1 (Bring your mission to life!), they need to be passionate, and back to #2 (Develop your board members into ambassadors – not fundraisers), they need to know their role and the expectations for giving. As the group closest to the organization, they lead the way.

  • Share giving expectations: I’m not a big fan of a minimum gift, but I do think it’s critical to share expectations of giving with your board. My experience is that it’s about right to have 2/3 of your board able to make significant major gifts to lead the way for successful fundraising. As the development officer at a nonprofit, I would be the one to sit down with board candidates during the recruitment process and share with them our hope that our organization would be in the top three charitable gifts that they made each year. We also said we hoped as they became knowledgeable and passionate about our work that they would consider a major gift pledge over multiple years (and then we defined an amount). Candidates were honest and open about whether this was possible and then our nominating committee could decide if they brought other skills and knowledge important to the board acknowledging there was room for approximately 1/3 of board members who couldn’t be major donor
  • Conduct a formal board solicitation process: Your board members deserve the respect of a personal ask by a peer.

#4 Clarify that fundraising means more than making an ask! Per a 2015 survey of nonprofit organizations conducted by Stanford Graduate School of Business about half of nonprofit board members believe that their fellow board members rank fundraising very high relative to their other obligations as board members. Forty-five percent of nonprofits require board members to fundraise on behalf of the organization. Among those that do, 90 percent of board members believe that fundraising is as important or more important than their other obligations. So, let’s give them the tools they need to be successful.

  • Educate on fundraising and the donor cycle: Board members need to understand that you are asking them to be ambassadors – not solicitors (although you will find some that will be great at it). Making the ask, is the very last step in a meaningful relationship. This is a good retreat topic or special part of a board meeting. Tip: Ask a colleague or board member from another organization or a consultant to present this information. They will listen more to an outside expert!
  • Teach them to walk before they run: Ask them to take one or two roles in fundraising that are truly fun and personal. Lead a hike of donors for your environmental organization, speak to teens about their own career path at the human services organization, or call a few donors to say thanks for their gift. It’s important to be strategic about how to get the most from each board member.

#5 Incorporate these key elements into your major gifts program. I am often asked about what has made the work I have led in nonprofit major gifts successful. Here are the top three elements:

  • Strong case for support: Before you start fundraising each year and on a regular basis, step back and ask your staff leaders, your board and your donors:
    • Why is what we are doing in our organization important?
    • Can you define what we will do this coming year that we are not already doing (serve more people, expand the service in some way, etc.)?
    • What is creating the urgency for us to raise funds for this program/service?

Refreshing your case for support annually, identifying short and long term needs, making sure that it is clear and compelling to your board and donors is key.

  • Define and Identify major gifts: What is considered to be a major gift for your organization? I don’t believe it is a dollar figure as much as it is about significant gifts (usually from assets and beyond an annual gift) that will focus on an extraordinary program or capital outcome and make an impact, often over multiple years. Who will be the prospects who can partner with you as major donors to fulfill your joint vision for the organization.
  • Board leadership: Are your board members leading the way as ambassadors of your organization with their giving and engagement? Does your board embrace your major gift case for support (beyond annual needs)? Have you engaged them in the process of developing the case? Is it visionary and compelling? Will 2-3 or more of your board leaders step up to give a major gift for the case?

Having the right board players in place to lead your nonprofit will change the dynamic of your organization faster than anything else you can do. They will be advocates for you and your major gift program because they already believe in the mission and you have provided them with the tools in fundraising to be successful!

Mary Kaufman-Cranney, CFRE is a vice president with Alford Group. She offers assessments and trainings to nonprofits on a range of topics, including board development and engagement; major gift process and successful strategies. Email Mary to receive a personalized plan to address your organization’s needs and learn more here.