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Turning Board Members into Fundraisers: Q&A with Claire Axelrad

Ready to see big fundraising results from your board? Check out our on-demand webinar and discover the 3 Ways Every Board Member Can Raise $5K in 30 Days. Watch it now!  

In another recent Nonprofit 911 webinar, Claire Axelrad shared strategies to help nonprofits transform their board from reluctant fundraisers into ready fundraisers. Claire AxelradWe had so many fantastic questions during the webinar that we weren’t able to address, so I’ve asked Claire to tackle them here. Read on to learn how to help your board become passionate fundraisers for your nonprofit.

Could you address overcoming quid pro quo—where many board members don’t want to ask friends because they don’t want to be asked in return?

Claire Axelrad: This fear stems from believing that asking is an arm-twisting, guilt-inflicting, “you rub my back and I’ll rub yours” endeavor. It’s not!

Asking should be about sharing one’s passions with others, and then asking them to join you if they share your passions.

“Different strokes for different folks” is the way around the quid pro quo dilemma.

It’s quite possible that you and your friend both love music. So when you ask her to make a gift to the symphony on whose board you sit, this makes sense. When she later asks you to make a gift to the environmental organization on whose board she sits, it’s okay for you to decline if environmental issues don’t particularly float your boat. And you explain this to your friend exactly this way:

“Sarah, I’m so appreciative of the gift you made to the symphony. I know how much we both love classical music. I’d love to support a cause of yours, too, but this one just isn’t my thing. I’ve decided to make impact gifts to five philanthropies annually, which means I stick with the causes closest to my heart. This just isn’t one of them. I respect the work you’re doing for them and hope you understand.”

And one more thing: Quite often, the quid pro quo ask never materializes. Your friend may or may not give to your organization; you may or may not give to your friend’s. And she may or may not ask you to do so.


How do you respond to board members who say, “I don’t know any rich people”?

CA: There are two ways around this one. The first is to say:

“You don’t need to know rich people. Just think of your peers. Are there any who might be interested in what we do? You’re making a stretch gift here. Maybe they’d like to join you. You love this organization. Perhaps they will, too. Don’t assume they won’t be interested and say no on their behalf. Let them in on what we’re accomplishing here—maybe they’ll get just excited about it as you are!”

The second is to offer a different fundraising assignment. They don’t have to identify donor prospects, at least not until they become comfortable doing so. Board members can play a number of different fundraising roles—as ambassadors, advocates, and askers. Ultimately, it’s my goal to get them to wear all three hats. But sometimes you must work up to this slowly. Try this:

“If you can’t think of anyone to refer right now, let’s look at some other ways you might be able to help us with donor development. Would you be willing to make thank you calls, write personal notes on appeals, speak on our behalf at a community group, take prospective donors on tours? How might you be comfortable sharing your passion about our mission with others?”

Isn’t it true that development and relationship building should be the board’s highest priority? I ask because our board is already stretched very thin.

CA: Nonprofits are established to meet demonstrated community needs. A board’s highest priority is to assure these needs are being addressed. They do this through their double-fisted governance and financing roles.

The board as a whole has governance responsibility to establish policies, programs, procedures, and budget and to assure the mission is carried out effectively. In this regard, it also collectively hires, evaluates, and fires the executive director.

The board members as individuals have the responsibility to assure that financing is in place to carry out the mission. If they refuse to ensure that funding is in place to carry out the plans and budgets they’ve approved, they’re essentially creating an unfunded mandate.

Often, staff will criticize board members for “underperforming.” But how can they perform well if they don’t understand their role and responsibilities? Staff have an ongoing responsibility to orient, educate, and develop their board so they can effectively fulfill their job. For an interesting take on board roles, check out Problem Boards or Board Problem?

If board members are uncomfortable with the roles you’ve defined, is it acceptable to ask them to step down?

CA: Absolutely! Board slots are valuable, and you can’t afford to have them filled with folks who just sit on the sofa. Plus, cranky and passive board members drag other members down. One rotten apple truly can spoil the whole barrel. Ask them to do something else if being a board member is not a good fit for them at this point in time. Suggest they may be more comfortable, and more useful to you, on a committee or advisory group. Or set them up with a meaningful volunteer activity.

How can we implement these ideas with an “old” board? Many of our members are still from the founding board (30-plus years ago).

CA: Boards really should have terms of office established in the by-laws. You need to escape from the cycle of “that’s not how we do things here.” Plus, you need opportunities to move new folks onto your board as a big “reward” for being a dedicated donor and/or volunteer. If you limit the ways new folks can get involved with your organization, you limit your ability to raise funds going forward.

And then there’s the issue of group dynamics. Board leaders who fear fundraising spread that fear. A scarcity mindset prevails where everyone whines about how difficult it is to raise money—to the point where it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cup-half-empty boards lead to cup-half-empty nonprofits. You won’t be able to grow. And in today’s competitive environment, if you don’t grow, you die.

Many board members are unaccustomed to the relationship cultivation and solicitation required to land major donations and are fearful because they don’t know how to do it. It’s the job of a nonprofit’s leadership to work with such board members to help them feel both passionate about the cause and confident in the fundraising process.

Board members will often gravitate toward special event fundraising, such as selling tickets to a cocktail party or a golf outing, because it’s an easy way to solicit support without having to make the case in person. However, leadership should help board members realize that people typically give major donations only to other people, not to paper. Even the most inspiring newsletter can’t match the emotional connection of a face-to-face appeal.

Board members are best equipped to make these appeals when they’re passionate about what they’re “selling.” Leadership should help board members identify which services speak most to them and make those services the heart of each person’s appeal. It comes down to inspiration trumping hesitation.

Everything really boils down to inspiring philanthropy. And it begins with igniting your board members’ passions so their important role of ensuring that your mission will survive and thrive follows as naturally as flowers follow spring showers.

Thanks to Claire for sharing her insight on getting board members more comfortable with their role in fundraising.

Ready to see big fundraising results from your board? Watch our free webinar and discover the 3 Ways Every Board Member Can Raise $5K in 30 Days. Watch it now

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