Here’s an all-too-common scenario: the executive director is frustrated because he or she thinks that it’s the duty of the board to raise money, but board members aren’t doing it. A few board members agree, and they say—or bring in a consultant to say—something like, “Board members have to raise money. That’s their main job.”

Board members typically have three reactions to this scenario. First, people resent being required to do fundraising when they were not told of this requirement when they were invited to join the board. Second, they feel guilty anyway about not raising funds for the organization. Third, they doubt they could succeed at raising money, even if they were to try. It’s as if they were invited to a potluck, arrived with one dish, and were then scolded for not having brought birthday cake for everyone.

To untangle this knot, it’s helpful to think of the board as having two roles: a governance role where the board acts as a body to ensure accountability, and a support role where board members act as individuals to assist the organization through volunteering and donating. Ensuring that the organization has a realistic strategy for raising funds is a critical governance responsibility of the board of directors. But that strategy may or may not include individual fundraising by board members. The strategy for raising funds will probably include a combination of efforts: fees-for-service (such as tuitions, registration and service fees, tickets), special events, mail fundraising campaigns, government contracts, and individual major donor gifts.

There are four crucial rules to fundraising on the board:

  1. As a body, the board is responsible for approving, and monitoring the performance of, a revenue strategy that will sustain the organization’s work.
  2. In the context of that plan, each board member, as an individual, must do something to help implement that strategy.
  3. No one has to do everything.
  4. Expectations must be clearly and fairly communicated to new board members during the recruitment process.

For an asthma awareness center, the board may consider several funding strategies, such as a combination of foundation grants and an annual dinner/dance, a combination of participating in a walk-a-thon and publication sales, mail appeals combined with major individual gifts, and government contracts combined with foundation grants, etc. This board may decide to adopt a strategy of participating in the walk-a-thon, selling publications and soliciting major individual donations. This decision is based on what is realistic for the current board and staff as well as the opportunities most open to them.

As a result, board members, in their support responsibilities, agree that each board member will participate in one or more fundraising activities. One board member agrees to bring 10 volunteers to help at the walk-a-thon. Another will send out e-mail publicity about publications to book editors and bookstores. A third agrees to hold a party at her house, and ask her friends to attend for $1,500 each. Each board member is, in a way comfortable to that person, supporting either the contributions component or the earned-income component of the revenue strategy.

In short, the board’s governance responsibility is fulfilled by its choosing and monitoring a revenue plan, while individuals fulfill their support responsibilities by participating in the plan’s implementation. Clarifying this distinction, as well as the expectations of board members, will go a long way toward calmer, less charged, more productive discussions about fundraising.

This article applies the CompassPoint Board Model for Governance & Support to the issue of fundraising. Also see the forthcoming book, The Best of the Board Café, November 2003, published by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, available in October. Free subscriptions are available at the Board Café. This article is reprinted with permission from the Board Café, a free newsletter for members of nonprofit boards of directors, copyright CompassPoint Nonprofit Services.

Jan Masaoka is executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, consulting to nonprofit organizations in CEO transition, business planning and boards of directors, and located in San Francisco, California. She authored All Hands on Board, published by BoardSource, and writes the Board Café, a free electronic newsletter with more than 30,000 subscribers.  In 2002 she was named by NonProfit Times as Nonprofit Executive of the Year.