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Getting Beyond the Blame Game

Posted by Anne Wallestad, President & CEO, BoardSource on Feb 27, 2014 10:55:14 AM

pointingBy Anne Wallestad, president & CEO

The challenges that organizations face in securing the resources they need to succeed is well-documented. Many organizations are teetering on the edge of failure, and many more are forced to forego advances in their programs or services due to a lack of resources.

At BoardSource, we often hear the frustration and angst from chief executives who are facing these tough realities. Said one chief executive in response to the 2010 Governance Index, “I am so busy writing grants and trying to raise the money to pay the mortgage and keep the doors open that I don’t have time to get out and development relationships, cultivate donors, etc. The board has got to become more involved and committed to its fiscal responsibility.”

This connection between executive angst around fundraising results and frustration with board fundraising performance is real. According to a 2013 report from CompassPoint and the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, “Underdeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising,” 75 percent of all executives say that board member engagement in fundraising is “insufficient,” with 17 percent of executives indicated that their board has no involvement in fundraising at all.

BoardSource’s 2012 Nonprofit Governance Index indicated that fundraising is the lowest ranked area of board performance, with only 5 percent of all chief executives assigning their board an “A” and 75 percent giving their boards a “C” or below. And, underscoring the frustration around board participation in fundraising, 40 percent of CEOs report that their board “relies mostly on the CEO and staff” to fundraise, despite the fact that 75 percent of CEOs report that “expectations related to fundraising are clearly explained during recruitment.”

But it’s not just boards that are shouldering the blame when fundraising results are lackluster. According to “UnderDeveloped,” roughly a third of all executive directors are “lukewarm or dissatisfied” with the performance of their development directors. And, conversely, fewer than half of all development directors say that they have a strong fundraising partnership with the executive director, with 21 percent of all development directors characterizing the partnership as “weak” or “nonexistent.”

The frustration between boards, executives, and development directors is understandable. If you’re not getting the fundraising results that your organization needs to sustain its mission, then it’s reasonable to ask the question about whether or not you have the right people on board to deliver those results.

But boards, executives, and development staff all too often get stuck in a blame game focused on determining whose responsibility it is to fundraise, instead of tackling the core issues that might enable them to achieve stronger results (for more on what boards and chief executives can do to change their fundraising culture, check out my blog post on the subject). To move beyond blame requires courage and commitment, and a willingness on someone’s part to take the first step.

A new BoardSource book suggests that staff have the opportunity — if not the responsibility — to take the lead. I would go even further and say that if staff — both chief executives and development directors — can’t get beyond blame to begin building and strengthening the fundraising partnership in their organization, then they have no one to blame but themselves when there is disappointment in their performance or — worse — the organization suffers financial blows that threaten its sustainability.

As Engaging Your Board in Fundraising: A Staff’s Guide makes clear, board members’ limited time for — and interest in — fundraising often curtails their engagement in fundraising efforts, and staff members need to work strategically to engage board members more fully. The book goes on to offer practical advice on how to go about doing that, and challenges staff members to make that effort.

Here are some key take-aways:

  • Connect to Mission: Successful fundraising efforts start with a passion for your organization’s work. Taking the time to be deliberate about engaging your board members with your mission will ensure that they are inspired to raise the dollars you need to succeed and can be authentic and compelling when they do it.
  • Build Relationships & Trust: For lots of folks (board members and staff alike) fundraising can be incredibly scary and intimidating. Staff members are often in the uncomfortable position of asking board members to step outside of their comfort zone and — to do so — there needs to be a foundation of trust and understanding. Taking the time to cultivate those relationships — especially with your most connected board members — can pay off in a big way.
  • Provide Support to Make it Easy: Board members are busy. To maximize their fundraising capacity, you need to use their time wisely. Don’t waste their limited availability on activities or tasks that staff members could do. Instead, be organized in your preparation and follow-up and ask them to do the things that only someone with their connections, relationships or stature can do.

Don’t get mired in the blame game. A stronger, more productive fundraising partnership is within your reach. Are you willing to take the first step?

Adapted from the foreword to a new BoardSource resource, Engaging Your Board in Fundraising: A Staff’s Guide, by Kathy Hedge.

Topics: Board Best Practices, New Trends & Resources

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