Boards as Partners in Development

Last time, I wrote in response to a reader's question about who evaluates the Board.  That reader, Hassan, has again raised an important question:  “… we say that one of the responsibilities for the board is “fund-raising”; however in reality, it happens that the element of fund-raising is by and large (almost 100%) managed by the appointed management, at least in case of Pakistan. So how can one involve board members in such things?” It’s much the case in the U.S., too.  I know, some of you are really lucky and have Board’s (or at least Board members) who actively fundraise, but in my experience, that is rare.  More common is staff complaining that the Board isn’t doing what they are supposed to do, and the Board not exactly sure how they could possibly accomplish this goal.

Let’s face it:  staff has this expectation that the Board will turn to their personal circle and say, “support this organization because I do.”  And the truth is, that when the Board member does that, the friend or colleague often says yes because he or she will come back to your Board member and say, “Remember that gift I gave you?  Now I need you to give me the same amount back for my organization.”

There are several problems with this scenario, not the least of which is that the gift received was not given because of any passion in your organization.  Indeed, too often the “donor” doesn’t even remember what organization he or she supported.  This is not the road to sustainability.

If you are the Board member, your reluctance to ask your circle for support becomes obvious—it is a net cost for you.  For every yes you receive, there is a return yes you will have to make.

So, Hassan, my answer is that we shouldn’t expect Board members to be fundraisers.  We should, rather ask them to be our partners in the development process.  That is, work with us to identify people and organizations who may have an interest in the work we do, and help us to turn that “may” into an absolute “does” have an interest.

There are many ways your Board can do this—but do not expect them to do it alone.  Partnership means you work together and that often means that staff has to take the lead.

I always like to start with the fun things:  have your Board send personal thank you notes to your donors.  This not only stewards those donors, but gets your Board inside of those dry gift reports.  Give them enough information so their note can be specific, but not enough to overwhelm.  Tell your Board how much was given, how it was gotten and what the gift is for.  If it’s for general operating funds, give your Board member some language that conveys the importance of your work.

If you have a facility, ask the Board member to invite their friends for a tour—and then make sure your tour is more than a walk through of empty and boring rooms.  Or ask them to invite a few close friends to their house or a restaurant in order to acquaint those friends with your organization.  Keep your presentation short—and make sure you talk with your Board member to find out how to best capture their friends’ attention.  Then follow up as you would with any other prospect.

Ask your Board to add their friends to your mailing list.  And then ask them to sit with you as you review that list and tell you everything they can about their friends.  Look at the larger list—who do they know there?  What can they tell you?  And then, who would they be wiling to introduce you to? The more you work with your Board, the more ways you will find that they can help you identify and reach likely supporters of your cause.

Development means the act or process of developing, which in turn means “to bring out the capabilities or possibilities of…”  By helping your Board members to be part of the development process, you will be not only gaining prospects and donors, you will be bringing out the capabilities of your Board members, and increasing your fundraising possibilities.

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits to increase their fundraising capacity.  Much of her work is in training Boards to be effective partners in the development program.  Learn more at or email Janet at