Key Fundraising Insights for Every Board Member

By Ted Rodgers, Partner and Executive Consultant

I serve on three non-profit boards. They all raise money, but the strategy is different for each one. One is a missionary sending agency where team members raise their own support, another is an international ministry that awards grants for specific program areas and the third is a seminary that does fundraising for initiatives such as scholarships, operations and other special projects. 

Of these varied experiences, one may be similar to where you serve. While on the surface the approaches seem different, they do have some important core elements that apply to each. As board members, we need a “road map” to guide us to understand how to evaluate what is going well and what might need a course correction. 

Here are some key elements you need in your board toolbox to ask good questions and understand your ministry’s fundraising program.

Core Principles

Let’s review a few core principles that are true in any fundraising context. First, people give to people they know and trust. It makes sense that we will invest our largest gifts with those we know and especially those we have seen deliver on the use of past gifts. Second, people must be asked and shown how to give and understand the context of their gift. All of us calibrate our gift levels based on factors like the size of the goal, timeframe to make our gift and who else is participating.  Third, donors’ largest gifts come when they are involved in a deeper way and have sense of ownership. Indeed our treasure is where our heart are.

 Three Essential Characteristics of a Major Donor.

Study after study shows that every major donor has three essential characteristics. They have a life history of generosity, a deep and growing deeper connection to your organization and financial capacity. Many of us have the first two and engage regularly, but lack the third essential ingredient of financial capacity. Knowing these three essentials as a board member helps us understand why and how our CEO and our development team need to invest their time.

The Importance of a Case

I think it is hard to overestimate the importance of a clear and compelling case for support. It should tell your organization’s story, articulate your mission, recite accomplishments and provide the road map of how you want to move forward. This will include your fundraising initiatives, goals, and importantly, missional deliverables.

A few years ago, following a campaign feasibility study, the company president was returning to report that donors were committing to gifts well below what they had indicated previously. Some not willing to commit at all. 

I asked him to show me how he was using his case in meetings. After a long pause, he said, “I decided not to use the case.” Need I say more?

Careful Counting – Annual Fund or Campaign, or…?

Various fundraising strategies and approaches have varying components, costs and outcomes. In the right context, all may be good but as a board member you need to understand some of the important differences.  For example, “direct mail” and events are typically the most costly per dollar raised. So, it’s important to “look under the hood” to understand what costs are included and which ones have not been. Staff time is typically one gets overlooked. 

Other annual fund strategies vary but typically have a cost of 20 to 30 cents per dollar. The total program will likely be a mix of in-person visits with the top donors, various sized events and broad based solicitations. As a board member, we need to look at the scope of the entire plan to various constituencies. Because sophisticated donors know that you are counting on their gift every year – and hoping for an increase – they frequently discount their gifts, often significantly. 

The campaign strategy is one of the most efficient and cost effective for raising larger levels of support in a relatively short time period (two to three years). Donors typically give larger gifts in a campaign – often from assets – because they know it is a limited timeframe and their gift is going to have a dramatic near term impact.

Three Important Leadership Roles

The President/CEO, Chief Development Officer (CDO) and the Board Development Committee all play an important role in a successful fundraising program. Essentially, the president is the vision-caster and trusted leader, both internally and externally. The CDO functions as the “executive producer” of the development plan. Your board committee provides oversight and leads the board in setting priorities and achieving 100% board participation. 

Thanking Well

As a board member, you need to know that donors express their biggest frustrations and disappointments about not being thanked well. I have heard multiple donors say, “I never heard what happened with my gift.”  You can never say thank you too many times. Your organization will distinguish itself to thank well. And, you as a board member can help in meaningful ways with personal cards, notes and phone calls to those who invest in your mission. It will make a difference, especially when it comes time to ask for the next gift.

Listen to the conversation between Brad Layland and Ted Rodgers on this topic below: