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

Good Habits Underpin Great Fundraising Boards

Fundraising Habits
Jerold Panas is author of The Fundraising Habits of Supremely Successful Boards: A 59-Minute Guide to Assuring Your Organization’s Success. In this interview, he discusses the traits of successful fundraising boards.

What led you to the topic of fundraising habits?

I work with organizations all over the country, of all sizes, of all types. From YMCAs to colleges to hospitals – and many in between. The budgets range from $1 million a year to $2.6 billion.

And what I’ve noticed is a common thread woven through each. When an organization is vital, providing outstanding service, and balancing its budget – I find a board that practices very specific habits. Particularly fundraising habits. 

How many boards would you say you’ve worked with?

Keep in mind, I’ve been at this a long time! I suppose in my 40 years of consulting, I’ve actively worked with somewhere between 300 to 400 boards. 

And roughly how many have had a majority of the habits you write about?

Most boards practice a good number of them. Only a few can claim them all. One thing if for sure – it’s easy to spot boards that don’t have these habits. They stumble along.

If you had to single out, say, the top two habits that would carry an organization the furthest, what would they be?

Hmm, that’s difficult. I’d say, first, You don’t allow a mission deficit.

It’s pretty easy for an organization to balance its budget. It can keep cutting expenses, services, staff, maintenance – and by doing this, maybe save enough money to operate in the black.

The problem is, when a board slashes and slashes, it creates a mission deficit. The organization no longer has a real purpose. And that’s far worse than a financial deficit.

The second key habit I’d mention is, board members must be advocates for the organization.  Roaring advocates. Burning in their bones for the work you do. If they’re not, they probably should be home tending their garden.

In terms of fundraising, are boards as important today as they were in the past?

No – they’re far more important. It’s a complex environment we live in. The competition for market share and philanthropy is unrelenting. If a board doesn’t embrace the habits I describe, the organization’s future is without spirit and hope. Dreams die, sometimes fast – other times it’s slow and agonizing.

Staff seem to be doing more and more of the soliciting these days. Is that a positive development?

It’s true. I find staff doing more of the asking. And some are extremely good at it.

But my experience confirms that when staff and volunteers work together, it’s a magic partnership. There’s nothing more important in securing a gift than having a board member join staff in the asking. It’s an unbeatable combination.

A study was just published called Daring to Lead. Something like 70 percent of the executive directors interviewed said they needed more help from their boards with fundraising. Why the resistance?

Part of it may be the fault of the recruiting process. A person is recruited but not told that one of the major responsibilities is to assist with fundraising. So it may not be as much a matter of resistance as board members not knowing – right from the outset – what’s expected of them. My experience is that trustees will stand on tiptoes if they understand their role.

That’s where the staff come in. It’s up to them to make fundraising a joy, and it is if undertaken properly.

A joy! Come on now. Isn’t that expecting a bit too much?

It takes some practice, and knowing the right technique, and some help from a staff person or volunteer. But when you ask for a gift and you’re successful, there’s nothing quite like it. There’s a surge, a high, an exhilaration. Ask any successful solicitor and they’ll confirm what I’m saying.

Can someone be a great board member and not raise money?

Successful board members bring many attributes to the table. They give, and the organization on whose board they serve is one of their primary philanthropies. They work hard and use their influence. And of course, they do their darnedest to make wise and thoughtful decisions.

But you can’t deny that one of the most important responsibilities for a board member is to ask others to support the organization. I give that a high priority. It’s a habit that must be developed, practiced, and sustained.

When recruiting, can an organization spot a trustee who will be a great fundraiser?

Good fundraisers aren’t born, they’re made. There are some who come to the organization with a real talent for fundraising and enjoy it.

But for the others, I’m convinced they can become great fundraisers if they’re coached properly and have a passion for the organization. Passion becomes the essential ingredient. So yes, you can spot them – if they have high aspiration and dedication to the organization.

Describe the oddest experience you’ve ever had with a board.

I’ll tell you one that was very odd … and very exciting. Several years ago, the Menninger Clinic moved from Topeka to Houston. For a number of reasons, it was a smart decision.

At one of their regular board meetings, the session ended with trustees filling out one of those typical information forms. You know – name, phone, birth date, preferred mailing address, cell phone, that sort of thing. The forms were collected and a few days later turned over to the IT person. As she went through each form, entering the data, she noticed a note on the back of one.

It said: I wish to make a pledge of $25 million to the project we discussed at the board meeting. I’ll make payments over the next few years. He signed his name.

The IT person wasn’t certain whether this was a joke or for real. Nothing had been mentioned at the board meeting and the trustee hadn’t talked to anyone about it before (or since, for that matter). She went to the Vice President, who was dumbfounded.

A call was made to the trustee and the conversation went something like this: “We happened to notice on the back of your information form a note that … well, a note you signed, indicating quite a substantial gift. Uh … I wanted to make sure this was indeed your intent."  

It was in fact the board member’s intent and the first payment has already been made.


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