Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Jan/Feb 2012, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Involving the board in fundraising and helping them develop their fundraising leadership is an ongoing challenge for many organizations. Sometimes, board members are reluctant to participate in fundraising because of their discomfort with talking about and asking for money; sometimes, lack of board involvement is about the organization not knowing the right strategies to engage board members. Other times the board or the organization itself isn’t functioning well overall, so fundraising is also ineffective. But sometimes, the problem relates to structure—that is, how fundraising activities are decided upon, who leads the work, and how board members participate.
When organizations are trying to figure out what role the board should play in fundraising, they often default to the structure they are most familiar with or that they’ve heard other organizations use; the most common is having a more or less permanent board committee that takes the lion’s share of responsibility for the organization’s fundraising. What people often don’t realize, however, is that there are many viable structures to choose from or to create and that, to be most effective, these structures should be matched to the culture and capacities of the board.
Over the years, the Grassroots Fundraising Journal has published several articles describing different possible board structures for fundraising (see sidebar). In this article, we provide a brief overview of each of these ideas to help you start comparing them. There are undoubtedly other options that are not included here, and some groups have created hybrid structures that incorporate different aspects of each of these. The key is to not stick to a model for the sake of the model, but to create a structure that is informed by the board itself.
Before considering the appropriateness of each structure for your organization, consider the following questions:
- Where is our organization in terms of our fundraising culture? Does our organization have a strong track record in fundraising—a clear plan, experienced staff, board leadership, and infrastructure, such as a database that serves our needs? Or are we starting anew?
- What do we want our organization’s fundraising leadership to look like this year? Is the staff leading? The board? The board chair or someone else? Or is there an equal partnership between board and staff?
- What kind of learning opportunities does the board want to prioritize this year? Do board members want direct fundraising skills-building? Or to learn about starting new practices and habits? Or taking their experience to the next level? Or leadership?
- How do we work together best? Is our work most dynamic when working together as a full board? Do we work best in smaller groups or committees? Or as individuals?
It is not up to the staff to choose the best structure for the board. The board should be tasked with this decision, with the discussion being led by the chair of the board. This mutual decision-making creates more buy-in and ownership from the board itself, and it sets the precedent for the board chair to be involved at a leadership level, regardless of which structure is chosen. When a structure is decided upon, be sure to set a timeline for evaluating it, such as one year later, and then make modifications as needed. (More on evaluating structures below.)
The five models that follow are just starting points. With thought and discussion, tailoring the models to fit your organization’s needs will result in a structure that has broader buy-in and greater effectiveness.
For many boards, everyone is involved all of the time. All board members are expected to participate in all fundraising activities the organization carries out.
- Pros: The board does not need to plan ahead of time who will be involved in what, which is different from the other structures discussed here; all board members are exposed to all fundraising activities; brings the full capacity of the board to each activity; can help reluctant board members find hidden talents and interest.
- Challenges: This approach doesn’t match board member skills and interests to activities, which can lead to more obstacles to involvement or to board members feeling that their skills aren’t used well; can lead to board members feeling that they are being used only to raise money; can lead to board members feeling that they are always scrambling, while staff feel that they are constantly trying to wrangle board members to fulfill fundraising responsibilities; can put the bulk of the fundraising burden on staff.
This may be a good structure to consider if the organization is just getting started in grassroots and donor fundraising, and board members are learning and planning as they go. This approach can also be preferable for boards where members do not have much fundraising experience and can learn by being involved in a variety of activities. This kind of structure is common in all-volunteer organizations and groups that have an active working board. If the organization has staff, this structure often puts the bulk of the fundraising leadership on staff and requires sufficient staff capacity to be successful.
Many boards organize their work into standing committees, such as governance, board development, and finance. A standing fundraising committee is usually chaired by a non-officer board member; its purpose is to lead and work on all board tasks related to fundraising.
- Pros: This approach provides a clear body within the board that is responsible for fundraising; the board plays a clear leadership role for fundraising; the committee provides a voice for the board in deciding on fundraising strategies and how to carry them out; the committee can help delegate and divide up tasks.
- Challenges: Because the same people are always working on fundraising the work can get stale; this approach can lead some board members to believe that they do not have to fundraise if they are not on the committee; it has the same challenges as all committees do regarding clear goals, recruitment, and the need for a strong chair.
This structure is likely appropriate if the board already uses a committee structure and finds it to be effective. It works best when the head of the committee is a strong fundraising leader.
Individual fundraising contracts basically derive from a form that outlines a menu of options that board members can choose from to fulfill their fundraising responsibilities. Some choices may be required (such as making a donation that is personally significant), while others may be optional (such as participating in major donor visits). Some activities may be individual (such as hosting a house party), while others may be group-oriented (such as joining the phone banking committee). Each board member usually fills out and signs such a form each year.
- Pros: Board members can choose which fundraising activities they want to participate in, making it more likely that they will follow through and that they are choosing activities of interest to them; a written form makes it easier to hold board members accountable to their commitments; makes it easier do yearly planning because members have committed to plans at the beginning of the year.
- Challenges: Although each board member makes an individual commitment, a central leader is still needed to support and remind them to carry out those commitments; members don’t necessarily work together, so their individual activities are often not coordinated; because the activities are individual, it can be difficult to have people stick to deadlines or gain momentum from the group.
This structure may be best if your board members are geographically dispersed and are likely to be doing their fundraising individually anyway. It also works well if board members are fairly self-directed and already have some experience in fundraising, or if members vary widely in the types of activities that interest them.
Rather than having board members participate in several fundraising activities over the course of the year, another option is to have all board members lead and participate in just one major fundraising campaign or event per year.
- Pros: Because there is only one activity per year, it is often easier for members to prioritize involvement in that activity when it comes around, and members are likely to put in more effort to accomplish it; this approach provides a clear structure for the board to take leadership on its designated fundraising task.
- Challenges: Board members may not—and may be resistant to—get involved in other fundraising activities; it can be risky to put everyone’s effort into just one activity, especially if the event doesn’t end up meeting key goals.
You may want to consider this structure if the organization already has a signature event or campaign that brings in a large bulk of the year’s fundraising income, such as a gala, film festival, or major donor campaign. This structure also works best when the board works well together as a team, and it can be a good way to develop teamwork among board members.
The seasonal fundraising committee differs significantly from a standing committee. In this structure, ad hoc committees are formed for each fundraising activity that the organization has planned for the year. People are expected to serve on only one committee and be marginally involved in the organization’s other fundraising activities.
- Pros: People only have to focus on one activity per year, making it more likely that they will put in their full effort and not feel tapped out; because there are multiple committees, more board members will have the opportunity to play a leadership role.
- Challenges: You don’t get full board thinking in each fundraising activity; because each committee likely will have different levels of experience, you need ample staff support; there may be a lack of continuity from year to year as the committee membership changes.
This structure requires a large enough board that there are enough people to serve on only one committee each. For example, if you have one fundraising activity per quarter, and want at least four people for each activity, you will need 16 people overall. Clear expectations need to be set for how the non-committee board members participate in fundraising so that they don’t assume that they don’t need to participate at all. Clear processes for the ad hoc committees and documentation of their activities and results will also be needed.
It’s worth re-stating that these descriptions are meant to serve as a starting point for your board discussion about board members’ involvement in fundraising. Your board may decide, for example, that the best structure is having everyone work on one board-led event combined with a standing fundraising committee that coordinates the board’s leadership of the event in partnership with the staff and in the context of an individual commitment form that members fill out to indicate the event commitments they’re willing to make (such as find five sponsors and sell twenty tickets). Thoughtful creativity is encouraged!
Don’t worry about finding a one-size-fits-all structure—instead, focus on creating the structure that fits your board now (and keep in mind that it may not fit your board forever).
Once you’ve worked with a particular structure for a while—say, a year—take a look at how well it’s working for your organization. Keep in mind that it can take time for a new structure to take hold and flourish. Even if the first year’s results don’t meet the goals or expectations, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s time to try something new—perhaps a little tweaking of the structure will help it to work better.
Although the evaluation questions will vary depending on the organization and model used, here are some issues to consider to get you started:
- How did we meet our goals in terms of dollars raised, donors reached, skills, and leadership built? How did the structure help or hinder reaching those goals?
- Was the structure effective for us? Did we have clear communication, clear roles, and expectations, increased board leadership? Did the fundraising workload feel like the right balance between board and staff? Did board members feel like they could excel in their fundraising tasks within the structure?
- What changes can be made to make this structure more effective? Are there small adjustments or modifications, or are major changes needed?
Check out these articles at grassrootsfundraising.org to learn more about the different structures.
- “ Contracts with Board Members: A Working Model” by Octavia Morgan
- “ How to Get Your Board to Raise Money – Plan X” by Kim Klein
- “ The Seasonal Board: Shorter Commitments Create Greater Involvement” by Jill Vialet
- “ 53 Ways for Board Members to Raise $1000” by Kim Klein
Priscilla Hung is the editor of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal and former executive director of GIFT.