Board Giving: When and How to Ask Your Board Members

Timing and approach matter when asking board members to meet their financial obligations.

With her experience training more than 37,000 development professionals across the U.S. and internationally, Linda Lysakowski, ACFRE knows how nonprofits of all sizes can struggle with board giving.

What’s the right way to ask your board members? When is the right time to ask? Nonprofits must explore these questions, because getting either wrong can backfire.

Here, Lysakowski shares insights from her new book, “CharityChannel’s Quick Guide to Board Giving.”

Board Giving: How Do I Ask Thee, Let Me Count the Ways?

I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to asking board members for their financial commitment. So, when and how should the ask be made? Let’s talk about some options.

At Recruitment?

I’ve always stressed that you need to raise the issue of board giving during the recruitment process. So, is this the time to ask for the gift? No. It’s too soon. Board members are just hearing about the expectations in many areas such as attending meetings and events, fiduciary responsibility, and their financial obligations. In fact, they may say no to serving on the board, so it’s really too soon to ask for a board gift! Or you may decide they aren’t good board material. Even if there is mutual agreement that board service is the right move for this prospective board member, you don’t want to whip out a pledge card and expect them to sign it on the spot. Let them know, instead, how and when they will be approached for a gift.

RELATED: Why Small Nonprofits Need 100% Board Giving

At Orientation?

So, let’s wait and ask them at orientation. That’s a good plan, right? Wrong! During orientation, board members should be focused on absorbing information from the various briefings they received—programs, the budget, the strategic plan, etc. The chief development officer should also provide a briefing on the development plan and how fundraising works in your organization, and should touch on the importance of board giving. But giving is an individual thing, and they don’t want to be asked as a group. So, please don’t do it here.

A Letter from Our Board Chair?

Another mistake. It’s better than being asked in a group, or is it? Think about how you typically use direct mail—to acquire new donors, to reach out to those who typically give small gift to your organization, to send news about your organization. None of these are what you’re trying to accomplish with your board giving. Board members are not new to your organization, they are not being asked for low-level gift, and they receive the news through board meetings and other interaction with staff. So, why would you approach them through the mail?

At the First Meeting of the Year?

Okay, Linda, you always say we should ask them early, so this idea makes sense, doesn’t it? Sorry, wrong answer! The “Here’s your pledge card, fill it out” approach doesn’t work with major donors and it won’t work with the board.

A colleague called me shortly after accepting a new development position. He sought advice about how to handle his organization’s approach to board giving. He had just come from his first board meeting in his new position, and he said the board chair started the meeting by saying that board members were expected to contribute to the organization, handed out pledge cards, and said, “Fill out your pledge card and hand it to me before you leave the meeting tonight.” Not exactly a well-planned, thoughtful approach to board giving!

Nag at Every Board Meeting?

I’ve attended a lot of board meetings and have often seen the board chair (usually with an uncomfortable look) say, “Okay, you know we all have to make a financial commitment and so far, we’ve only had 60 percent of the board make pledges.” Does this work? What do you think? What I’ve observed is there are usually a lot of board members shifting around in their seats, a few looks of haughty derision (“I’ve made my pledge, have you?”), and a couple of people stammering an explanation or apology. “Oh I thought that was by the end of the year,” or, “I lost my pledge card,” or, “Oh yeah, I wanted to send it in but I forgot.”

Threaten to Fire Those Who Don’t Give?

So, what do you do with the board member who does not give? “You’re fired!” Wait a minute. Can we even fire board members? Yes, you can. (See Simone Joyaux’s masterpiece, “Firing Lousy Board Members.”) But it is a process that requires much consideration. A decision to fire a board members wouldn’t happen solely on their inability or refusal to contribute. What other benefits do you gain by having them on the board. Is there a valid reason they are not giving? You need to have a private discussion with these board members and perhaps give them options—monthly giving, a pledge to be paid later, a smaller gift than they were asked for. However, don’t let them off too easy either.

I worked with one board during a capital campaign and one of the board member refused to make a pledge to the campaign. The board chair said, “Okay, we know it’s important to have 100 percent board giving to this campaign, so I’ll make a pledge in Gary’s name.” Seems like an easy out, huh? But is it a legal, ethical, and wise thing to do? While there is no legal reason this cannot be done that I am aware of, it is certainly not ethical nor wise to set this type of precedent. Ethically, you cannot say you have 100 percent board participation if you don’t. And do you really want to set a standard like this? Pretty soon, other board members will say, “Well I don’t want to give, I’ll just let Jack make a gift in my name.”

RELATED: 7 Ways Board Members Can Give to Your Nonprofit

Shame Them?

One organization I know has a poster in the boardroom listing each board member by name and the amount of each board member’s annual gift, contributions they’ve made to the organization’s two annual events, and gifts they’ve obtained from others. While this might be looked at as a tactic to shame board members  into giving, it can also serve to inspire them and foster a healthy sense of competition. It might work for your organization.

Inspire Them?

Another organization conducted its annual staff appeal at the same time the annual board appeal was being conducted. When the results of the staff appeal were announced at a board meeting, the board was shocked to find out how much was raised from the staff, which consisted of mostly social workers. The board chair said, “Wow, folks that is amazing, I think we board members better pony up.” Several board members increased their pledges on the spot.

While these may seem like shame tactics, they served to inspire the board.

Educate Them?

Another way to inspire your board includes educating them about fundraising. One thing you can do is hold a “mission moment” at each board meeting where they hear from program staff about the work your organization is doing and how it is changing and/or saving lives. This makes them want to support your efforts and makes them feel part of the mission and vision.

RELATED: In-kind Donations: A Nonprofit Attorney’s Perspective

You can also have some educational sessions on the importance of fundraising, and especially how important their giving is to set an example for others. You might want to bring in a board member for another nonprofit whose fundraising is extremely successful and have this board member talk to your board about how board giving made a difference in their fundraising success.

So, what is best way to ask board members? Funny you should ask! In my upcoming book, “CharityChannel’s Quick Guide to Board Giving,” I’ll explain the annual board appeal.

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