March 15, 2012
Excuses & Trustees

As you begin the task of increasing the trustee’s involvement in fund raising it is important to consider some of the obstacles you are likely to face. If yours is a typical 25-person board, likely no more than three or four are already involved and excited about the fund raising program. The fact that this number is so small should definitely concern you.

And yet, how often do you stop to analyze your trustees’ hesitation? Surrounding the reluctant fundraiser is a mix of negative but unspoken hesitations. Often we fail to acknowledge this mix; even more rarely do we address it. 

Excuse No. 1:

I don’t want to solicit John personally, but you give him a call and use my name.”

This excuse typically comes from trustees who are embarrassed to solicit their friends. What I recommend you say is that if John is worth calling on, then he’s worth calling on the right way.

While fund raising is built on names and contacts it is much more than that. If John is a personal or professional friend of this trustee and yet a staff person contacts him, John will quickly note the absence of peer involvement. He’ll then wonder if his friend views the project (or him!) as second-rate. These questions will lead John to resent his friends and your institution. Then, if John gives only out of courtesy, the second-rate solicitation will have done more harm than good.

A red flag should go up whenever you hear this excuse. By avoiding a peer solicitation, what trustees are really saying is that they haven’t bought into your fund raising projects. So the second half of tackling this excuse is to cultivate ownership. I suggest the following steps:

1.         Be sure that when trustees vote for projects, they also vote their enthusiasm, ownership, and responsibility. You should discuss these three attitudes explicitly whenever the board considers a particular motion. Even though the board will approve fewer projects as a result, the ones it does OK will be more likely to succeed.

 2.         Make certain the projects your board does approve are part of a strategic plan. The plan should include a rationale for the project and a distinctive mission that excites the board. Viewed in the context of a good plan, raising funds for the project is more like sharing an investment opportunity.

 3.         Encourage polite fund raising. If the reluctant trustee says, “It’s rude to hit up friends,” point out that it’s ruder for staff to hit up strangers.

Help trustees ease into fund raising by showing them how to cultivate and listen to prospects. For instance, trustees at one institution adopted an out-reach-cultivation-listening program for all board members. Such a program helps trustees see that, far from pressuring uninterested colleagues, a well-planned solicitation helps askers match donor interests with opportunities to give. This is a program we might want to consider.

 4.         Cultivate trustee pride in an enthusiasm for the institution. Honor trustees as your most important volunteers. Then find ways for your most loyal and active board members to encourage fellow trustees to “belong” to the institution. The “use my name” excuse will disappear as trustees start to want to speak for their institution.

Excuse No. 2:              

 I don’t give enough myself to be an effective high-level solicitor.”

Trustees who say this are right: Peers are often the most effective solicitors. But help these trustees be realistic. We can’t exhaust wealthy board members by asking them to do all the soliciting. And we can’t bankrupt the rest of the trustees just so they can qualify to peer-solicit major gifts.

Since peer solicitation isn’t always possible, help your trustees recognize that it’s only one part, and not a prerequisite, of successful solicitation. People respond to people more than dollar amounts. It’s most effective for the trustee to simply say, “I have given the best gift I could. I hope you will do the same.” After all, just as impressive to potential donors are such traits as enthusiasm, sensitivity, and credibility.

Other ideas for helping trustees ask for more than they can give:

1.  Have successful trustee fund raisers talk with the full board about the ingredients of a successful solicitation. This puts peer solicitation in perspective and uncovers willing and able solicitors with enthusiasm, contacts, and so on. Build imaginatively on trustee contacts. We often see $1,000 trustee donors whom - because of business connections, community standing, or personal friendships - obtain $10,000 gifts.

2. Help trustees recognize that stretch commitments are proportional to means. To match ratios rather than dollars, advise your trustees to ask, “Will you join me in doubling annual giving” or “Like me, could you give a capital gift 20 times your annual gift?”

3.  Always encourage board members to stretch. The $5,000 donor may well solicit the $10,000 or $15,000 prospects, and so on.

 Excuse No. 3:

"I don’t see the urgency of the project these potential donations would support

 This often occurs right after the effort is underway and you get this “by the way” excuse. This excuse is hard to counter because it reflects the trustee’s personal feeling. Yet the reluctance stems from controllable problems in board/staff relations, strategic planning, communication, or all three.

Look again at the board’s strategic plan. Ironically, a plan can motivate trustee fundraisers more than a fund raising case. That’s because of all people, trustees know that a fund raising case is meant to justify a project. So a plan has more credibility for them. It looks objectively at your changing environment and all your options and needs.

So look carefully at the plan and then ask yourself: Does the plan’s mission truly motivate trustees? Does it cover the “why” rather than just the “what” of their endeavor?

Are the projects for which you want the board to raise funds in the plan? Does the plan offer a rationale for them?

1.      Did the board initiate, participate in, and approve of the plan? Did members of the board specify before hand the uses and benefits of the plan? To help drive your fund raising, the plan’s purpose and impact need to go beyond fund raising.

2.      Review how you communicate the importance of fund raising projects. What you say, or not say, in development reports, gift acknowledgements, and publications?

3.      Do the messages repeatedly bring home the project’s importance? And do trustees actually read these messages?

Excuse No. 4:              

"Fund raising is what we hired the Development Officer or CEO to do."     

 1.  Have trustees ask themselves whether fund raising is an important board priority.

 2.   If fund raising isn’t now a board priority, decide whether it’s temporarily OK for you and the board to work to understand and reshape board/staff relations and plan for the future. A workshop can help.

 3.    Ask trustees to help plan fund raising and prospect strategies. This involvement makes board members feel they own the development effort.

 4.  Clarify the board’s expectations of the staff. By targeting and researching appropriate prospects and reminding solicitors of their assignments, you and other members of the staff can encourage and strengthen your trustee fund raisers.

 An example of how staff can help: A trustee leader told me that a prospective donor he’d solicited once returned to campus and pulled from her purse a check for 10 percent of the capital campaign. The trustee wouldn’t have known to ask her for that much if the staff hadn’t coached him.

Excuse No. 5:              

"I’m just too busy."

This excuse suggests that the trustee’s enthusiasm for and belief in your institution is weak. The chief development officer, your CEO, or a fellow board member should talk with the reluctant trustee to explain and strengthen:

 a.      The relationship among the four institutional cornerstones - board issues, planning, marketing, and fund raising. When it comes to exploring how these cornerstones support your institution, a board workshop is once again a good way to give trustees the perspective and enthusiasm to get off the dime. In addition, an outside consultant may be able to help trustees see the link between the cornerstones in strengthening your long-term fund raising potential.

b.      Your institution’s investment in board management. By doing a better job of managing the board, your organization can improve trustee membership, involvement, and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the most important prerequisite for fund raising.

c.       You should try to:

 i.      Strengthen the nominating committee to attract the most committed new trustees possible. As part of this profile your current board, identify the kinds of new expertise you need, and build a large and well researched candidate pool. Then help the board select, cultivate, recruit, and orient new members with these unfilled needs in mind.

 ii.      Use workshops to uncover trustee aspirations and match them to selected board responsibilities.

 iii.      Initiate trustee self-evaluations. These will help your board members come to their own conclusions about areas in which commitment and skill are lacking.

Excuse No. 6:              

"I’m afraid of fund raising. It’s distasteful. And I’m no good at it."

 This excuse reflects fear of the unknown as well as fear of rejection and loss of prestige and friends. It could also mean that trustees who say this are themselves afraid of being expected to give more than they want to or are able to.

When trustees solicit, one of two things will happen: The donor prospects will say yes or no. Remind trustees that a no is not a personal rejection, and rarely is it a rejection of the institution. Instead of concentrating on the no, trustees should consider the potential joy of a yes, especially since a trustee-solicited major gift is often many times greater than what other askers could bring in.

Trustees should also remember this: The alternative to thinking positively is often saddling themselves with two negative emotions: fear of soliciting and guilt about failing to help solicit.

Trustees can also take these steps to reduce their fears:

1.         Give a gift of their own. Conventional wisdom holds that the solicitor who has given is better at asking others to give. Making a donation also helps the solicitor get beyond any fear and uncertainty about his or her own commitment.

2.         Regularly talk with other members of the board about successful solicitations. This reinforces positive lessons, makes solicitations more familiar, and can lessen fear of the unknown.

3.          Make calls as part of a board/staff team. Again, this can give the reluctant asker a record of success to build on later.

The importance of sensitivity

 Any time your trustees express any of these six excuses, respond by listening closely and questioning carefully. Although you can counter some excuses directly, others reflect problems with your institution or board. Exploring the problems in a sensitive, non-threatening manner can provide a catalyst for better management.

So as vexing as excuses may seem, they can be a great help. They can open up productive discussions with your board about fund raising, what makes it work and what is says about your institution.

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