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Three Fundraising Mistakes to Avoid When Engaging Your Board

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

I like to think of fundraising as being all about teamwork, and your primary team is your board. These are the individuals who give and get, who provide their expertise, relationships and special ideas. They care.  As their fundraising coach, you must provide them with the proper context to motivate and succeed. You must devise a game plan, instill confidence, and help avoid the errors that demotivate the very team that you need on your side. 

Here I mention three of the most common and debilitating errors we make with our boards.   The good news is that all three are easy to avoid!


Mistake # 1: Fundraising before Friendraising

How many times have you heard from a new board member, “I’ll help, but just don’t ask me to ask for money”?   Unfortunately many board members are confused about their role in fundraising. Somehow, many have been led to believe that their primary role is to ask for money, rather than to introduce. But we all know that fundraising is all about relationships. The number one role of a board member is to help introduce valued relationships, whether it’s for expertise, leadership, or yes – fundraising. If a board member is not willing to share relationships then they should be a supporter, not a board member. Asking is the culmination of many steps leading to commitment, trust and an interest in making a difference  And when done right, it’s far from the first step and far from the last step.  Have you been asked to make cold calls? Fun? Comfortable? Of course not!  Your board should be asked to engage friends, the support and money will follow. And if you or your board members are making cold calls, you absolutely haven’t made proper use of your team. Insider Tip: Ask your board to host a small cocktail or luncheon at their home. Make sure they and their guests know there will be NO ASKING for money. The purpose of the gathering is to introduce your cause to potential new friends, without pressure. Make the event small, this is not about numbers, it’s about relationships with people who can multiply your reach. Make it casual, explain why the cause is so meaningful, and the invite them to learn more. No videos, no formal presentations, and please no tacked-on asking for money!  Don’t start a relationship with an ask, start with cultivation.


Mistake #2: Emergency fundraising

This does not refer to a genuine, obvious emergency, such as an earthquake or hurricane.  This is all about a crisis at your organization. “Our fundraising is down, our vice president left unexpectedly, our operations costs went up, our programs are in trouble, and we need donations or we may have to close down!    Do you expect your board members to go to their relationships and ask for gifts to what was described as a sinking ship? Emergencies happen, the unexpected occurs, and sometimes you can go to your most engaged and invested donors who may trust you when the chips are down. But the vast majority of donors want to invest their funds in a well-managed organization that will deliver promised results, based on a track record of success. A sense of urgency is a good thing, but focusing on an internal crisis sets up board members for unpleasant fundraising experiences and even mistrust. Many will begin to plan their exit strategy. It becomes all about the money, rather than the good which your organization can produce. Insider Tip: Think, think, then think some more. How can you work with your board to present the crisis in a way that inspires support rather than fear? For example, describe how the board has been preparing for such a problem, and developed alternative solutions. Explain exactly how a new donation would be leveraged to serve as an investment in a long term and sustainable plan. If your finances show trouble, put a cover sheet on your financial reports explaining the situation in the most positive manner possible, and focusing on what you are doing to solve the problem. Don't ignore the problem or assume people will understand. Unexpected setbacks do occur, and donors and leaders WANT to help you. But they aren’t going to throw their money down a hole.  Don’t “beg”, explain how a generous gift will move your organization forward and overcome short-term challenges.


Mistake 3: Insufficient coaching and preparation.

Board members are volunteers. They often are smart, successful, and outgoing. But they need support and guidance. Too often, we expect our board leaders to perform with very little preparation and backup. Then we ask them to go have lunch and ask for a gift, or go off and sell tables to a gala. Just think, when do human beings procrastinate most?  Usually it’s when they don’t like a task or don’t feel confident that they can perform adequately.  Insufficient coaching of the board team leads to uncertainty, anxiety, excuses and delay.  Make sure your board members know your case for support, discuss it with them in advance, answer questions, and deliberately poke holes in the cause. Engage your board members in deeper conversations so that they feel prepared and knowledgeable to deal with objections. Give them stories to share which exemplify the good that your organization does. If they are approaching a prospective friend for support, do some research in advance. A board member may know someone on a personal or professional level but have no idea of other backgrounds issues that may help create a comfortable conversation. Show them you’ve done your homework so that their trust in your organization grows. Make sure their expectations are set correctly. It typically takes 10 to 12 months between an ask for a major gift and a “yes”. Your board members usually don’t know that! A feeling of disappointment does not encourage involvement. Cultivating donors is rarely a straight line and your board members must have the information, confidence and training necessary to go with the flow. INSIDER TIP: If you are joining your board member to ask a potential donor for support, don’t wing it. First provide your board member with all significant background such as history, donor record and personal interests. Then have a conversation as to who is going to say what, and who is going to make the ask (too often, everyone expects someone else to make the ask). Make sure to provide three possible options for support. Be prepared with key materials which you shared with your board member in advance. Remind yourself, and your board member, to be quiet once an ask is made.  Finally, discuss how you will close the meeting, and what promised follow ups can be offered (i.e. “would you come and take a tour with me in a week or so?”)  


A Final Word Don’t forget to listen.  Listen to your board members. Have them listen to their friends and potential supporters.  Rote plans rarely work. Fundraising mistakes can often be prevented, by opening your ears and not your mouth.  Be prepared. Set expectations. Ask for investment, not salvation. Make friends. Your board members deserve professional support from staff, defined objectives, some practice, training and inspiration. They will be more confident and your organization will benefit from greater involvement and stronger fundraising!

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