Myth: Good Board Members “Give, Get, or Get Off.”

altReality: Good board members govern.

There is certainly a germ of truth in the give-get-or-get-off dictum that so many boards live by: Nonprofits do require funding, and governing does require nonprofit board members to think about funding. But all too often, this germ of truth mutates into a giant, fast-growing myth that ends up choking good governance to death.

What could be wrong with a board that lives by the give-get-or-get-off rule? First, board members with lots of money or access to people with lots of money are not necessarily capable of asking hard questions, confronting difficult challenges, or enriching the board’s diversity of perspectives—all of which are essential to good governing.

Second, just as it’s easy to mistake enormous personal wealth for evidence of an individual’s talent or industry, it’s easy to mistake successful fundraising for evidence of a nonprofit’s social impact. More than anyone else, board members should be steeled against this confusion, and committed to digging for meaningful evidence of impact.

Third, a board hustling donations may be too busy (or complacent) to tackle the strategic aspects of fundraising. It’s easy to stop asking: How much money are we spending on fundraising? Do we need a more diverse funding base? Are the many strings attached to funds from foundations, individual donors, and government grants or contracts actually taking us away from our mission? In short, fundraising is not governing. To the contrary, governing requires wariness of fundraising.

None of this is to suggest an abstinence-only approach to a board’s involvement in fundraising. Plenty of boards can keep their eye on the big strategic questions facing the organization and provide vigilant fiduciary oversight while also giving or getting. In fact, fundraising can be a healthy sign of board members’ commitment to the organization and its mission, and make them more vested in its success. But to be both fundraisers and governors, boards need to reject the tyranny of the give-get-or-get-off rule. For example, in recruiting new board members, they should look at all of the asset s a prospective member brings to the organization, not just or even primarily at fundraising ability. Similarly, in allocating the board’s time, they should be careful to note whether work on fundraising was marginalizing important governing work. And in assessing their effectiveness, boards should never mistake a good fundraising track record as an indicator of good governance.

Of course, a reflective board might consciously opt to sever the connection between governing and fundraising entirely. (For an example, see “Separating Governance from Fundraising: The Story of Center Against Spouse Abuse,” in NPQ’s Fall 2003 edition.) But whatever thei r choice, it should be a choice—a decision arrived at after careful deliberation. Deciding whether and how to give or get—not just giving or getting—is real governance.

Bill P. Ryan is co-author, with Richard P. Chait and Barbara E. Taylor,
of Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards (John
Wiley & Sons, 2004).

  • Sue Renfrow

    I worked for over 10 years developing an organization to serve parents, children and families in Iowa. In that time I (as Executive Director) raised over 3 million dollars in grants,public and private,to support the agency. We spent $15,000 in 4 years to hire a fundraising consultant to train the directors on fundraising and private donor cultivation, along with $10,000 to produce a organizational information video. No one did anything, even when I tried to keep it in front of them constantly. When the agency lost a federal grant 2 years ago during Washingtons’ inability to pass a budget, cash flow became tight and we had to use $22,000 of a line of credit we have had for 8 years. The Board panicked and voted to close the agency (with only 7 remaining members, even though By-laws clearly state must have 10 to 15. So after 10 years of work, I am out of a job and our bank will probably be stuck with the debt. Most important parents and children lost their programs and services to help their families. Still reeling….

  • Gayle L. Gifford


    I think this mantra is one of the most damaging expectations for creating a great board and great fundraising.

    I think I was one of the first individuals raising this contrarian view of boards. See:

    I wonder what our sector would say if we applied this same thinking about the board to program execution? We don’t expect amateurs to run our programs, so why do we expect amateurs to run our fundraising?

    The board’s job, first and foremost, is to ensure that the organization is truly making a difference in its community. That means getting extremely knowledgeable about community need. It means really pushing to define social impact. It means asking really tough questions about how the organization knows it is doing anything of value. It means constructing an organization that accomplishes what it set out to do – by recruiting a qualified CEO and ensuring a plan for the investments needed to realize the theory of change and core strategies that bring that change to life.

    Part of that work is designing a viable, mission appropriate organizational funding model then assigning authority to someone for ensuring the successful execution of that funding model. And the reality is, in most every nonprofit, that assignment goes to staff.

    In some cases, that funding model depends on philanthropy, especially large donor philanthropy. If that

  • Ed Guthrie

    Every Board member has the responsibility to financially donate to the nonprofit where they serve on the Board and the donation should be significant. “Significant” may mean different things depending on your income but if the Board members do not financially support the nonprofit, why should anyone else?

  • Renee McGivern

    I didn’t even know there was a give-get-or get-off rule. Never heard of it. Who’d want to serve on a board with a rigid expectation like that? Every board needs a few members who enjoy raising money. But every board member? That must be a resume-building board.

  • Kadir Ismail

    The question of Board Members in the governing body and their behavior is a matter of concern requiring some revision regarding their control over organizational activities.

    Here I would like to draw a distinction between the concept of non profit making organisations in western and Asian countries; and this is in fact based on the observations made by Thomas Wolf. Thomas’concept is based on the conduct of Western non profit making organizations.
    My point to be very precise is that Western organisations are activity based and Asians are ideal based.In India there will be no organizations without conflict of interest in the constitution of board members and you can find this has been extended to appointment of project directors. this is my observations and still I am insisting on avoiding conflict of interest and the problems still persist surreptitiously.

  • Alexandra Peters

    Turn this ugly little phrase around and imagine it being applied to staff: Give, get, or get out. It’s an angry voice, barking an order. Everyone would be shocked at how disrespectful it is. And yet, we somehow think it is okay to treat the volunteers who hold the ultimate responsibility for the sustainability of our organizations as if their wallets are all we are interested in.

    When we see the leadership of our nonprofits as being useful only to be directed as to how they should personally provide the organization with money, we aren’t looking at the board as a team whose collective wisdom will steer the organization into the future. This unpleasant directive (who would work in an organization, as a staff member, if you were being treated like this?) undermines the important work of the board, who have jobs no-one else can do, and big jobs at that. (Hiring, evaluating and maybe firing the CEO, setting policy, merging or shutting down the organization, etc etc.) When you need them in a crisi, will they all have gotten off because they’ve been told their only job is fundraising?

    I so agree that boards need to reject this tyranny. And they should read your book, too, Bill!

  • Scott Lynch

    If one cannot contribute to the financial viability of the organization (remember that as a board member you have a legal fiduciary responsibility)you should simply be a volunteer for the organization. You don’t have to be a board member to contribute to and provide leadership for a cause that you care about. By volunteering for the board in these tough fiscal times,(nobody is making you be a board member)you are accepting responsibility for the organization’s governance and financial well being. Fundraising is tough, necessary business that organizational leadership must participate in. So, I’m sorry, but give, get or get off.

  • Judy Anderson

    Hi think the concept of everyone contributing is fine. Even important. But, after that point, I think we have to step back and stop promoting the corporate board structure and values–and start promoting thinking, caring, inquisitive, supportive, thoughtful and learning people for boards.

    Too often we see nonprofits told to get “the Big Influencers” on their boards…(read money often), and yet they may not be good team players or strategic/critical thinkers. I think it’s time to start emphasizing shared leadership with staff, and build organizations that ensure they are in touch with their community.

    Fundraising is about solving problems, connecting passions, positioning the organization for greater success as a team. It doesn’t take money people to do a great job fundraising–it takes passion, communication, strategy, vision, and personal commitment.

  • Aaron Andersen

    Scott, you can’t help with governance from a less formal volunteer position. Only the Board and Board-empowered committees or task forces or whatever they are called this week can take on a governance role.

    Just for one example, the CFO of a different nonprofit in the same industry could offer quite a lot of useful financial governance, which serves the Board’s fiduciary duty, even if that person doesn’t have deep pockets.

    And I agree with the author (as both a nonprofit finance manager, a Board member of another nonprofit, and a donor to a few other nonprofits) that fundraising often clashes with governance. When everybody is excitedly chasing dollars, to many legitimate governance issues are disregarded or come to be seen as inconvenient.

  • Samuel M. Prince

    It seems to me that there are an awful lot of apologists for nonprofit executives who are afraid of fundraising and afraid to go out and find board members who can make a meaningful contribution AND fulfill their obligation as board members to the organization’s financial survival.

    After 35.5 years of charitable fundraising and listening to countless Masters and PhD’s whine and moan about fundraising, it is very discouraging to hear all this moaning about getting board members to fulfill their obligation.

    If you do not like fundraising either get a job with a unit of government or find another line of work. Organizations exist on the sweat of their employee’s and volunteers’ work, often by the board but not always.

    Boards of charitable organizations could be divided into two groups. The oversight and management group and the revenue producing\fundraising group. But sooner or later you will be faced with a foundation proposal like the one I’m looking at right now that wants to know how many board members give and how much they give.

    Government is not a reliable source of funding. Meanwhile, charitable organizations need money to fulfill their missions. Increasingly that money comes in because someone close to the organization either has it, or has the influence to get it.

    Now please forgive me but I have to figure out a way to convince the board of my employer to fulfill their obligations. I wonder how big the gun will have to be.

  • Natalie

    My organization has a ‘staff appeal’ every year. There is no dollar amount attached to it, but it is expected that we will donate to the organization every year. Some staff, like me, don’t mind giving, but others are highly offended by the ask.