Motherhood and Apple Pie...and Nonprofit Boards

My first 4 years as a development professional was at a large university, where I was not at the level where I got to work with the Board of Trustees.  Fundraising was completely staff driven, and the only natural partners I had were the dean and some of the faculty.  So I was really excited when I got to my first job as the development director at a small nonprofit.  Our board was extremely well connected, very wealthy, and fundraising savvy. They gave handsomely and bought tables (yes, plural) to the annual gala. I thought I died and went to heaven.  Until it came time to actually work with them on fundraising.  In their mind, that was why I was hired, and they didn’t understand why I would expect them—busy men and women all—to do my job. I complained to my sister, whom I often say is the mirror image of me.  For example, I have spent most of my career working for or with nonprofits in advancement and she has spent the same years as a major donor and board member of a number of organizations.

To my chagrin, she agreed with my board.

Before I had much of a chance to argue, my sister asked, “What is it you really want from your board?  They make an annual gift; they buy tables at your gala; what else are you expecting?”

“Well,” I countered.  “Introductions.  Connections.  Help in cultivating and soliciting.”  Her response?  “Oh please.”

As we continued to talk she told me about her frustration of being asked by development staff for “names,” or being told to go out and “raise funds.”  She didn’t so much mind that when it was for small annual gifts or to fill seats at the annual gala, but when it came to more major gifts she wanted a whole lot more from the organization.

She would have been happy to be part of a process BUT—and this is a very important but—she did not want to be the fundraiser.  Or, as she eloquently put it—“If I had wanted to be a development director, I’d be a development director.” More importantly, she wanted to understand what the names were for.  If it was just so she—my sister—could go out and ask them for funds, no thank you.  All that would happen is that they would, in turn, ask my sister for a gift for their preferred organization.

So, I asked, what would make her—and by extension, my board members—be positive partners in development? She happily—and specifically—answered.

I’ve boiled down what she told me into a few easy points.

  1. Clarity of purpose.  Work with your board to explain how the process works at your organization and what you see their role to be.  And be realistic. Remember, these are either busy working people or busy retired people; while they may love your organization to bits, only a small fraction of them will have the time or the inclination to donate massive (more) hours.
  2. A process.  Don’t ask your board members to “bring in names of 5 people who could….”  Odds are they won’t and if they do, all you will end up with is…names.  DO bring forward a solid list of prospects and ask them who they have connections with and what they can tell you about these people.
    1. If you are pulling these people from your database, look for loyal donors; donors who are connected to your organization in special ways.  Having a child at your school is good; having several children is better.  Being an active participant in the parent association or class mother, or whatever is better still.
    2. If not on your list, look for people you have reason to believe might—if approached correctly—have an interest in what you do.

i.     People who have spoken out about the importance of Jewish education

ii.     People who are related to those who are involved with your school

  1. Creating a strategy.  As board members identify who they know/are connected with, work with them on a strategy—and remember, that strategy consists of what will be done to secure an endowment gift (over time—remember, this can take a very long time) and who will be doing what.
  2. Agreement.   Make sure you understand what they are willing to do. And ensure that you support them in that.
  3. Ownership.  Most importantly, remember—YOU are paid to do this.  YOU have the immediate vested interest in getting it done.  And this is why I think that one of the best trainings a development director can have is…motherhood.

In my years in development—both as staff and now as a consultant, my main job is as a nudge; my most important skill is persistence.

After my conversation with my sister, I went back to my board and put what she told me into practice.  I pulled together a list of people I thought had the capacity to make a major gift and had an interest in what we did.  What we needed to find was a way to get us on their radar.  And as we identified who they knew and how they knew them, we devised an overall strategy and a few first steps.  I learned that while some board members would actually set that lunch, most wouldn’t.  So I became very realistic about what would and would not occur.  And most of the time, I set the appointment.  “Hi, I’m calling for (Board member).  S/he would like to invite you/your boss to…..”

As we moved along the cultivation continuum, I kept the board member in the loop, always asked if s/he wanted to be a part of the next move (indeed, often asked what the next move should be in their opinion—and sometimes I actually thought they were right), and—perhaps most importantly—what they wanted their role to be.

Every success—from getting an appointment to getting a gift was celebrated, with the Board member or members who had been involved, no matter how tangentially, loudly recognized.

Over the years, the boards I’ve worked with have varied tremendously in their fundraising activities.  But no matter where we started, by understanding, and getting them to understand, our specific and detailed roles and responsibilities, I have been able to watch them increase their involvement and see fundraising success grow exponentially.

Janet Levine is a consultant, coach and trainer who works with nonprofit and educational organizations helping them to see their fundraising success grow exponentially.  Learn more at and while there, sign up for her free monthly newsletter.