What Nonprofits REALLY Want from Board Members

Colleen Dilenschneider posts another must-read at her blog Know Your Own Bone on the disconnect between what nonprofit executives need from board members and what board members expect to give during their tenure.  A study of visitor-serving organizations found that CEOs needed board members to bring in revenue – first, foremost, always. Executive management from nonprofits of all sizes consistently ranked “Treasure” as the top priority of the board, ahead of  “Time” and “Talent”. Board members reported their top priority was to share their “Talent” with the organization (with the exception of members serving on boards of 1+ million annual visitors).  The quotes from the study included in the post make it abundantly clear that while skills and connections are appreciated, if the organization is lagging behind in filling its coffers, board members better be ready to lead by example.

Part of this gap in perception could be chalked up to poor recruitment, incomplete vetting or a fear of appearing mercenary by enforcing the giving requirements in a board agreement. Never underestimate fear – it’s easy to list frustrations anonymously in a survey, not so much to be the one sweeping board members out the door and risking blowback from philanthropic circles.  If this gap exists in your organization you may want examine internal roles and procedures, for example,

  • Is your nonprofit making expectations clear to board members during the recruitment process or is the financial obligation suggested hesitantly and never broached again?
  • Do you ask long-standing board members who grasp the importance of their role in raising funds to mentor new members?
  • How does leadership respond to board members who state  they cannot get their connections to support your cause if the events aren’t more lavish or the promotional materials more appealing – the vague and unhelpful spend more to make … something… suggestion? In other words, do you allow members to  blame the organization for non-fulfillment of their own responsibilities?


If after some adjustments and clarifications around expectations and responsibilities your board is still giving you more verbal than financial support, it’s time for some no frills, honest dialogue between the leadership and members.  How would you begin?

The Development Director – A “Cursed” Position?

“You see, we have not been able to keep a Defense Against the Dark Arts professor for more than a year since I refused the post to Lord Voldemort.” —Albus Dumbledore

Have you ever wondered about that one position in your organization that seems to be a portal of sorts, depositing new faces into the office at a mildly alarming pace?  Hmm. Why doesn’t any one person seem to hold it for very long?  Why is that the only door in the office without a nameplate? What departmental antics could possible result in these once fresh-faced hires briskly stepping out the door one day never to return, nor be spoken of again?

In the Harry Potter series, a position at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is supposedly cursed by the evil wizard Lord Voldemort after he was passed over for the post. Those who hold it do so only briefly, all leaving (some more permanently than others) by the end of the term year.  In J.K. Rowling’s tale, that position is the Defense Against the Dark Arts (DADA) professor.  In the nonprofit sector, it’s the development director.

Ok, the comparison may be a bit of a stretch, but surely I am not the first to see the connection?  Actually, considering the findings of a study (a joint venture between CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund) that pinpoints some disturbing trends in development comings and goings, there may be more similarities between the DD’s and the DADA’s  than not.  The report, UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising, identifies 3 hefty issues around securing and retaining development professionals,

  • Turnover.  Sadly, a high turnover rate is the rule rather than the exception in development.  The average period of time a fundraiser holds a position is 16 months, not too much longer than the tenure of our fictitious DADA instructors.  Unlike the professors, however, fundraisers tend to leave for salary and promotion concerns rather than because they are a werewolf or have a cell awaiting them at Azkaban prison. Thank goodness for that.
  • Poor credentials or just a bad “fit”.   Finding qualified, experienced candidates is not an easy task. Professor Gilderoy Lockhart shamelessly padded his wizardry skills to get the DADA gig (he ended up irreparably wiping out his memory due his lack of expertise – imagine your insurance provider’s response to that claim).  A more likely scenario for a nonprofit –  your dream development director’s resume of degrees, skills and accomplishments does not translate into similar outcomes at your nonprofit.  Where was the disconnect?
  •  A lack of organization capacity and culture to achieve fundraising goals. The study found that 20% of nonprofits don’t even have a donor database. What? It’s 2013! Even the ill-fated professors had both cultural and systemic supports in place at Hogwarts. If nonprofit executives welcome their new development directors with a tour that ends with the equivalent of “Here is your office, we’ll be expecting  your  plan tomorrow and a full turnaround by next Tuesday,” well, is anyone surprised at the turnover rate?

Obviously the development director position isn’t really cursed, but it certainly has a set of challenges unique from others in nonprofit management.   It may even be the most difficult position for a nonprofit to successfully fill. Why is that and can that reality be changed?   

Nonprofit New Year’s Resolutions – What is Holding You Back?

We are already a week into the New Year and I cannot help but wonder how many personal resolutions have already been disregarded, if not outright discarded, or as I prefer frame it – tweaked into something more … manageable.  We all have big dreams on January 1, but to paraphrase Ms. Grant, nothing short of payment in perspiration is going to turn intention into reality.  Let’s just face it, evidence suggests that our resolutions are more likely to fall by the wayside than be attained.  Nothing horrible will happen when day #364 arrives and you never did register for that marathon or crack that volume of Proust, but when your organization is the one in desperate need of a “lifestyle change” how do you ensure that the change sticks?

There are at least three major problem areas nonprofits may need to reevaluate for 2013:


This year will be even more challenging on the funding front for any nonprofit that hopes spending cuts and words of austerity were just a passing storm.  This is an excellent opportunity to directly confront departmental or organizational fears that keep you hanging on to events that are no longer profitable and deferring serious talks about diversifying methods of giving and ditching your two-decade-old donor profile.  Be creative.  Be bold. The time for wishing things were different is over – 2013 is the year to revamp and revitalize your fundraising strategy and Beth Kanter has an excellent post on how to start thinking about doing just that.



The ability to meaningfully communicate why your nonprofit does what it does uniquely and effectively is key to successful messaging.  Solid content and consistent promotion of your organization indicates a good level of fitness, but engagement is what will take you to the next level.  The goal of storytelling, posting, and other social media activities is to compel your audience to action. This requires genuine engagement. Who are you talking to online?

I agree with Debra Askanase – 2013 is going to take social media to a whole new level in nonprofit communication, marketing, and even operations. If you are not doing more than dabbling in it (as in the requisite accounts and an intern as sole content curator/poster) you have whip your social media muscles into shape! Check out Debra’s post on nonprofit technology for plenty of workout material.


Making it Happen.

You could have the most knowledgeable staff working for the most dynamic Executive Director but your nonprofit is going to keep spinning its wheels if the Board is more impediment than inspiration. Board performance is a sensitive issue, but in this challenging climate it is one that can no longer be ignored with a “boards will be boards” attitude.  Challenge your board to explore their capability as a group and move beyond what can be accomplished around the big table to how they can actively help your nonprofit get closer to your organizational vision by December 31.   A helpful tool to begin this conversation is Elephants in the Boardroom: A Framework for Discussing Board Effectiveness Issues from the Fieldstone Alliance.


What is your nonprofit-related New Year’s resolution? 

Holiday Giving Expectations

Approximately half of American adults intend to donate to a charity this holiday season, including 47 percent of those who are currently unemployed, according to Razoo’s 2012 holiday giving survey. The online survey conducted earlier this month highlights the value families place on philanthropy as 71 percent believe in teaching children the importance of giving at an early age.

A survey from Charity Navigator captures nonprofit expectations of end-of-year giving with over half (51 percent) predicting that it will remain the same as 2011, 32 percent foreseeing an increase in donations, and 6 percent expecting a decline. Nonprofits considered results, familiarity and the fiscal health of the organization to be the top donor concerns when pledging a seasonal gift. Donors agreed that fiscal health and results were key factors in giving decisions, along with the charity’s record of accountability and transparency. What factors do you consider most important when deciding on charitable donations?