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Preach to the Choir

board developmentAdvice from Tom Dunworth

When I first entered the non-profit fundraising business 30 plus years ago I went to the library and found books that purported to be by experts in the field. I also went to fundraising conventions and diligently took notes. All of the authors and experts to whom I turned for guidance said that a healthy non-profit organization had boards of directors who lead the fundraising effort. In fact, fundraising, along with governance, was their primary job. “Giving and getting” was the popular phrase.

When I started working with boards, however, I found the opposite to be true. When, full of rookie confidence, I approached my board members to ask for their gift and to discuss prospective donors, I was repeatedly told, “I give my time, why should I have to give money too?” Or, “No one ever said anything about giving money or asking for money when I joined the board.” Or, “fundraising, that’s your job, not mine.”

These rebuffs were startling to a newcomer. When I turned to more experienced veterans they all said “Of yeah, that’s common, what did you expect?” Well, of course, I expected what the books and experts had told me.

The distance between theory and practice was so vast that I resolved to discover why. The following is my best guess.


In the Beginning: the Birth of Boards

American style non-profit fundraising practice grew directly out of the church building initiatives of the 18th and 19th centuries. Freedom of religion was a heady novelty and Americans embraced it with gusto. And every new congregation needed a new church building and, in time, those buildings needed new roofs or pews. How was all of that building to be paid for? In Europe, where most of the folks had come from, a new congregation would appeal for funds to the local nobility. In America the common man was king. So our forefathers and mothers turned to each other for funding. They said, “If we want to practice our religion, let’s put our money where our mouths are.” They formed boards and fundraising committees (often called “subscription committees”) and started asking each other, and their friends, for money.

This willingness to work together and the passion for religion amazed and were noted by the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. He correctly saw this community action as a product of the new culture of the United States.


Modern Times and the Role of Board Members

In modern times, however, board members are recruited for their connections and their potential ability to donate, and not necessarily the personal commitment to the institution that these church builders had. There are, of course, exceptions, but most modern non-profits are governed by board members who are at a distance from the day-to-day work of the organization. Unlike church members who meet each other at services every week, modern board members often engage with the agency once or twice a month, or less. The work of the organization and their work is more of an abstraction.

Paradoxically, the stronger the management of the non-profit, the less board members seem to be engaged. In our consulting work at Dunworth & Associates we have noticed that that strong management often distrusts an engaged board. An engaged board, of course, is more demanding and harder to manage, and potentially more threatening to career longevity.

So, what is the solution?

One of the clichés we hear a lot is “You are preaching to the choir.” Well, let me strongly suggest that the choir (board members) need more preaching than we think. They (we) need to be forced to engage with the organization, to learn everything they can about it. In my experience there is no way to underestimate how little board members know about what their organization is doing. Even more importantly, they rarely understand the critical role the organization plays in the community and why their work is so important. Finally, managers need to trust that a strong, engaged board is an ally, not a threat.

More on this here.