No More Asking Board Members to Swap Gifts with Friends – Please!

Published on July 14, 2022

Brian Saber

President of Asking Matters
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What will it take for us to get rid of this pernicious habit? It is such awful fundraising on every level, and we’re swapping so much long-term good for a bit of short-term gain.

It reminds me of credit card debt. I mentor a young gentleman of 23, let’s call him Alex, who has some credit card debt. Alex wants to pay it off slowly and put away an equal part of his paycheck. That sounds good. In reality, he’s trading some short-term false sense of security for his long-term financial health. If he paid off all the debt now, he would pay the credit card company far less overall and end up saving more.

The same is true of board-led fundraising.

Deadly Scenario Seen Again and Again

Let’s assume Anna sits on the board of your organization and you’re asking Anna to raise all the money she can. Perhaps you ask her to write an end-of-year letter or send out invitations for your fundraising events. Perhaps you’ve got a minimum “get” policy. Whatever it is, chances are you’re pushing Anna to look at her circle of influence for gifts.

While asking board members to evaluate their networks makes sense, asking them to do it for immediate gifts forces them to look at those they can arm-twist for funds, or those who know they can ask your board members in return.

So, Anna, being a good doobie, sends out letters and raises $2,000. Or sells $2,000 worth of tickets to your events.

What happens now?

  1. Anna probably tells you, “These friends gave because of me. Please don’t bother them during the year. Don’t put them on your mailing lists. I’ll go back and ask them again next year.”
  2. You add them to the database coded as “don’t contact” and send out four thank you notes. Anna finds out at least one is in error (“I told you Susie and Doug are divorced – this gift only came from Susie, and she was upset the letter referred to Doug”).
  3. Anna is solicited by her four friends and sends $2,000 worth of charitable gifts to their organizations. Or goes to four events she’d rather not go to! And now she’s given $2,000 of her money to causes very possibly not near and dear to her.
  4. At the end of the year, the cycle repeats. And every year it’s a bit awkward for Anna and her friends.

Here’s the kicker:

  1. One day Anna leaves the board. Guess what? All the donors she solicited leave with her because their allegiance is to her, not the organization, and she’s not going to solicit them once she steps down. It’s awkward again between her and her friends as they still want to solicit her but she’s not so keen to give.
  2. Now your organization replaces Anna on the board…and that person has to replace the money Anna raised.

Yikes! Have you seen this play out at your organization, or even in the fundraising you yourself do as a board member elsewhere?

This is Awful on Every Front

Anna feels put upon. She probably hated doing this fundraising in the first place and only did it to be a good board member (as you’ve defined it). She’s also, if she did this for six years, given $12,000 to organizations not in her sweet spot (as opposed to giving those dollars to you!). She might even have stepped down because she hated doing this fundraising.

Your organization has wasted resources a) interacting with Anna about these transactional donors, b) tracking the donors in your CRM, c) writing personalized thank you notes, and more.

You’ve brought in dollars short-term but do not have any more long-term donors who are passionate about your organization than when you started. You’re just reinventing the wheel year after year.

Ugh, ugh, ugh. I first wrote about this many years ago. I said my one wish was to stop this kind of fundraising. The more work I’ve done with non-profits and their boards, the more convinced I am that we must find a way to dial down this bad fundraising.

What Should Board Members Do?

Board members should only be involved in strategic, relationship-based fundraising. Serving as ambassadors, cultivators, educators, thankers, and, where appropriate, solicitors.

They should serve as mini major gift officers, each carrying a small portfolio – four is my magic number – of major gift prospects (which I define as any donors worth the time to cultivate and solicit individually and in-person when possible).

Those four don’t necessarily have to be in your board members’ own networks. How about all the people who are already donors or solid prospects and could use extra attention? Unless you’re a large non-profit, such as a university, chances are you have limited or no fundraising staff. You certainly don’t have any major gift officers, and your executive director and director of development can only spend so much time cultivating your larger donors.

Why ask board members to hit up those they know for transactional gifts when there are others who would give more if better cultivated? Why have board members ask for gifts you’ll only get in the short run when they can build relationships with donors who would give for many, many years? Why have board members give their money to charities they aren’t passionate about when they’d probably much prefer to give those dollars to you?

We need our board members to help us fundraise. And if we help them fundraise in the right way, we’ll raise much more money. We’ll create a more consistent stream of individual gifts. And they’ll feel so much better about their work. Talk about a win-win.


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