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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Maybe Fundraising Isn’t the Board’s Job After All
Rethinking a fervently held belief

by Maureen Robinson

There is a woman I know who plays something called Rotisserie Baseball. As far as I can tell, this involves choosing up virtual teams using a shrewdness and insight that baseball’s owners and managers apparently lack.

Because this diversion involves both a sport and statistics, I stopped paying attention to the explanation early on; as a result, I may even have this much of the basic theory of the game wrong.

Nevertheless, it made me think I could introduce a new activity into the nonprofit sector called Rotisserie Governance, to which I would affix the ™ symbol and hope to retire on royalties knowing I had introduced the first and perhaps the only note of playfulness into nonprofit governance.

In addition to giving all of us a chance to play a bit with a serious topic, I also believe it might relieve of us what I have come to see as a terrible burden – the idea that it is the board’s responsibility (job, obligation, choose among a word with force attached to it) to raise money.

In Rotisserie Governance™, executive directors (and undoubtedly a sprinkling of nominating committee chairs) would join a community of similarly obsessed folks to create virtual boards. All of these boards, every single one, would be knock-the-ball-out-of-the-park fundraising machines.

The leading candidates for inclusion would be drawn from the current board rosters of those places in the nonprofit universe that seem to have cornered the market on board members willing to ask for big money: higher education, cultural institutions and hospitals come immediately to mind.

For good measure, and because common wisdom tells us so, attention would also be paid to other features of good governance – wisdom, experience, a willingness to work as part of a team, a balance of perspectives, and a cross section of such critical characteristics as gender, race, ethnicity, and age.

In addition to giving and getting, we could develop stats that would measure things like: showing up for meetings, coming prepared, remembering information from meeting to meeting, asking good questions, and getting committee work done.

But the single most important talent of these fantasy boards would be their ability to raise money – and lots of it. To raise it without massive pleading and pushing on the part of the executive director and the development staff. To raise it because they like asking strangers and friends for money. And last but certainly not least, to raise it because, after all, they know it is the board’s responsibility to do so.

I have joined boards saying to myself: “It is now my job to raise money” and I have consulted with boards and gotten them to admit this is indeed part of the job. I have published the words “it is the board’s responsibility to raise funds” and transcribed them on numerous flip charts. And I have also watched as the words gathered in the minds of those in the room like water on a waxed surface, struggled delicately with gravity, and then slowly slid away, sometimes before the workshop or retreat ended.

In science, a theory or result is proved when it is reproducible. An inability to attain the same result twice or to achieve it only inconsistently tends to discredit the underlying theory. Theories are either refined or discarded when this happens. While governance is not science, it is still remarkable that we insist it is the board’s job to raise money when our efforts to put that theory to the test fail far more often than they succeed.

If propounding this theory were a problem of wishful thinking, or one of those moments where you put an idea out there and hope it sticks, there would be little downside to claiming something that may or may not be true but “what the heck, no harm in trying.” But that is not the spirit in which we make this assertion.

When boards fail to meet the responsibility or obligation to fund raise, executive directors feel they have a legitimate grievance and make their unhappiness evident. And boards themselves feel enormous guilt when, with regularity, their brains reproduce the mantra but their nervous systems say no, no, no.

I think just enough boards do just enough spectacular fundraising to keep the theory of the board’s responsibility to raise money alive. Every once in a while, we hear of ambitious capital campaign goals not only met but exceeded, and we take heart – It can be done! Proof that it is a responsibility of the board! Then, we look around the room and realize we can’t get our board to help correct the mailing list for the annual appeal.

How can this be? We have done everything we should. The expectation has been carefully stated at the time a member is first recruited to the board. Check! The orientation program is geared to help a board member connect the dots between the powerful work of the organization and the equally powerful need for support. Check! Staff knock themselves out stage-managing every fund raisin assignment to make success possible. Check! We have even expanded the definition of fundraising to include every imaginable gesture toward bringing in a donated dollar. Check!

And still, for all the careful following of direction and advice, it would generally be more rewarding for those of us attempting to get some fundraising action out of the board to knock ourselves on the head with a large rock.

The widespread failure to move the theory of the board’s responsibility to raise money into practice on anything like a consistent or broad basis makes our insistence on its truth remarkable. I understand why we want it to be true. I understand that as a theory it makes a certain kind of sense – the board is the fiduciary, it has ultimate responsibility for the success of the organization, the organization needs resources, therefore, the board has a responsibility to find those resources. It hangs together as a theory and there is some evidence pointing to its truth. But the insistence that it is true for all boards is like insisting there is no difference between gravity on earth and gravity on the moon despite evidence to the contrary, or, even less rewarding, insisting that the difference can be corrected through the steady application of effort.

I want to suggest we start over with this idea that it is the board’s responsibility to fund raise.

Let’s stop seeing the board as having an obligation to help raise funds and begin to see that individual board members represent an opportunity to increase ourfund raising capacity. Let’s do what we can reasonably afford to do as directors and development officers, as chairs of resource development committees, to capitalize on that opportunity.

Let’s bring on to the board people who are excited to be there; let’s help them be successful. Let’s look carefully at who on the board has the resources, the temperament, the will, the courage to ask for money, and let’s direct our efforts to where we are likely to get a result.

In particular, let’s stop adding this responsibility to the board’s job description without being certain it’s true and then badgering folks in an undifferentiated way to do what for them is going to be impossible.

Let’s stop being so angry and frustrated as executive directors and development staff that we are burning ourselves out, not with the effort of raising money ourselves but with the bitterness that comes with investing so much time and effort in trying to get others to do what they can’t … or won’t.

If we want a lot of partners at the board level able to raise money, then, by all means, let’s recruit people who have shown some talent on this score and see if they will do it for us. If fund raising matters more than other kinds of board work, then let’s develop the habit of saying goodbye to those who won’t do it. For those left at the table, let’s commit to the substantial staff support board members who fundraise genuinely require.

Let’s do what we can to get what we want or need, but let’s stop declaring that it is the board’s responsibility to raise money and then insisting this is true because we say so.

I believe I have a chance to make a fortune with Rotisserie Governance™. It will be a place where theory can rule without the constant frustration of reality – a place to have at last a fundraising board just by wishing it so.

Rotisserie Governance™ may turn out to be the perfect antidote to the frustration and guilt that seem to dominate too much of the relationship between the board and staff. If we insist that boards have an obligation to raise money only when we play the game, we may liberate ourselves to be our best in the place that really matters – the real world.

Maureen K. Robinson is the author of Nonprofit Boards that Work: The End of One-Size-Fits-All Governance. She is a consultant in nonprofit governance and management in the Washington, D.C. area.

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