The biggest fundraising problem facing smaller nonprofit organizations is board makeup. An organization’s board is its top level constituency—its first circle of community. A nonprofit’s community is comprised of concentric circles like the rings that ripple outward from a pebble tossed into still water. Each succeeding circle gets larger, but contains less energy.

The board is the first, smallest, and strongest of those circles. It should consist of people who place a high value on the organization and who are capable of and willing to support it with their expertise, energy, reputation, and money. The amount of money of course is relative to the wealth of each individual board member.

I’ve worked with and advised many smaller organizations and invariably those experiencing funding issues have two things in common.

  • A small board.
  • A dearth of board members capable of and willing to make or to get larger gifts.

A board needs to be big enough to give credibility to an organization’s value proposition—the reason it exists and should exist—and to assure appropriate oversight and support. An organization’s board should be its most direct path to major gifts. Relative size of donations is contextual. What would be a major gift for one organization could be small potatoes to another. It’s the impact of a gift on budget and fundraising goals that defines whether it is major.

How Large Should a Board Be for Successful Fundraising

As a former chief development officer, from a fundraising perspective, I’d always opt for a large board—20 or 30 members. That’s because nobody gives like a board member. I’ve also been the CEO of nonprofits, and I’ve found that boards with fewer than ten members find it hard to provide the oversight and support resources needed. On the other hand I’ve seen boards with a great number of members be less involved, or conversely sometimes become a drain on staff time. So what’s the solution?

What I like is a two tiered board. The fundraiser in me wants a large board. As CEO I wanted a smaller more manageable one, but not so small that it couldn’t provide adequate management and oversight support. I recommend achieving those seemingly conflicting goals by having a board of 20 to 30 members, and an executive committee of around ten. Active oversight would reside in the hands of the executive committee. The full board’s main functions would be to provide:

  • A pool from which executive committee members would be drawn.
  • Members for standing committees such as development, finance, etc.
  • Volunteer leadership for fundraising campaigns.
  • Assistance in other areas as needed and requested by the executive committee and CEO.

The executive committee would meet monthly and the full board probably quarterly. In this model, you get the fundraising benefit of a larger board while not creating the management challenges that a large, active board can sometimes deliver.

Nobody Gives Like a Board Member

The strong executive committee model is not unlike the concept of a small board and a larger advisory committee or board. In this model the advisory committee would have no power other than that of persuasion. The CEO and staff would be working with a board sized for easier management. Yet the advisory committee would be there for fundraising and to provide additional volunteer leadership.  So why not just keep the board small and create the large advisory group rather than a two-tiered board structure? The answer’s simple, and I’ve already stated it: Nobody gives like a board member!

Accepting a position on an organization’s board inherently carries with it a greater and more public commitment to that organization. When it comes to fundraising, you can expect board members to work harder to get donations and to make larger—relative to their ability—personal donations.

Let’s say I’ve sold you on the argument for a large full board and small strong executive committee. Now comes the real work, and in my opinion it is the most important work of any CEO, chief development officer, or board member of a financially challenged small nonprofit—recruiting qualified board members.

A Plan for Building Your Board

Nothing I have done is harder than recruiting qualified board members. First of all, you’re unlikely from a standing start to find 20 or 30 board members who place a high value on your organization and who are capable of and willing to support it with their expertise, energy, reputation, and money. I’ve been there; I know how hard it is to find even one such board member.

Approach this effort to change a board’s makeup like you would a fundraising campaign:

  • Establish prospect qualifications.
  • Identify qualified prospects
  • Set interim goals
  • Get the help of existing volunteer leadership
  • Reach out to your community.

We’ll assume your current board has ten or fewer members. They become the new executive committee. Charge them with a month long “each-one-get-one” campaign. Some will know people like the ones you want on the new full board. Have the executive committee and any informed community members you wish meet to build a list of candidates. Then rate and evaluate just as you would prospects in a fundraising campaign. Remember, you are qualifying candidates principally based on their value to your fundraising efforts. Of course if your existing board/executive committee is failing to meet other needs, you will want to recruit with an eye toward those needs as well.

Keep in mind you’re recruiting members for the new full board. Selling points include that they will not have to meet monthly and that the level of involvement asked of them will be less than that required of the executive committee. You want to knock down quickly as many potential objections to joining as possible. The goal here is to recruit qualified board members. Because you are recruiting to a large board that holds little day-to-day responsibility you can afford to accept some people who will later wash out.

Once you’ve successfully completed the “each-one-get one” campaign, orient your new board members and ask each to give you a list of three potential additional board members. Qualify, rate, and evaluate those and begin the recruiting process anew. Again, approach this effort with the same attention to detail you would a fundraising campaign. Keep repeating this process until you have the board and executive committee you want. You can expect some attrition along the way so be prepared for it and have a plan in place to mitigate its impact.

Less may be expected of the new full board, but that doesn’t mean you can lessen your efforts to nurture relationship with its members. Keep them informed in a way that makes them feel involved and part of the organization and its good works. Find ways to give them public visibility. Encourage those who show a willingness to do so to take part in governance and in the organization itself. Board members can be ambassadors to an organization’s larger community and to specific constituencies.

Do all of these things and your organization will grow in capabilities, recognition, value to its community, and last but not least its ability to fundraise.