Each board is unique, so its members must be too. The right dynamic between a board and its leadership will ensure the success of the organization, satisfaction of those who drive that success, and realization of your unique and powerful vision.
Who is your dream board member? In my experience, the answer to that question is dependent on the organization.
Quantitative research has shown that board giving has the greatest impact on overall fundraising success. And, based on extensive interviews with board members, we found that their giving is tied directly to their experience on that board. Even though a “good board experience” meant something different to different board members, some common themes were cited by many.
Here’s what board members want:
- Fellow board members with a solid reputation
- The opportunity to do meaningful work that directly impacts the community their organization aims to serve
- The chance to do work with an impassioned, articulate, and engaged CEO behind whom they can rally
But there is another crucial element underneath all of this: the match. Boards are not one-size-fits-all.
Building a board is not one-size-fits-all
If your organization is supported predominantly through special events, you may be tempted to go after a “big gun” board member. Resist! Board members who really want to spearhead capital campaigns won’t find the satisfaction they’re after if your vision isn’t ambitious enough to hold their interest. They may be very passionate about your cause, but if you can’t offer them a big vision and the opportunity to make that vision a reality, the fit isn’t going to be right.
On the flip side, if your strategic vision is to effect huge transformational change— systemic change rather than project-based goals—someone who’s experienced with annual fund appeals probably isn’t going to be a good match for your board.
Essentially, there are three types of board members, each with his or her own set of preferences for fundraising involvement. Their motivators and their ability and willingness to do the work you need them to do has to match the needs your organization has: needs guided by your organization’s strategic vision.
Modest Maturity Boards: Institutions with a smaller budget and limited programs typically approach funding through annual giving and special events. They enjoy the challenge of organizing and interacting, have outstanding social networks, and are excellent with details. Their giving potential may be modest.
Big Vision Boards: Big vision board members are driven by major gifts and extremely high-end special events. They are well connected to other high-income individuals, local to the community, and have significant cash flow therefore, their ability to give at higher levels is substantial.
Transformational Vision Boards: These very special board members are driven by leadership, and they are giving at the highest levels, including major gifts, special appeals and capital, and planned gifts. They bring significant assets to the table, are well connected to other high net worth individuals, and possess a strong belief in the strategic vision and a deep desire to support the organization.
Find the right match
If all the above makes it clear that everything revolves around vision, it should make sense that identifying and articulating your vision should be the first thing on your to-do list. We all think we know what our vision is (and some of us even have it laminated on a plaque in our office), but rarely is this vision tied sufficiently to our philanthropic goals. We have lofty aspirations we believe are possible for our organizations, but we don’t translate them into actual strategic plans that then guide the level of fundraising we’re going to need.
Here are a few steps for developing a great strategic vision that will stand the test of time:
- Make sure the foundation, philanthropy, or development office goals are aligned with the overall institutional vision
- Involve your current board members directly in the setting of those goals
- Remember that your goals are the result of where you want to go, not where you are
- Consider if your current board, structure, and fundraising mechanisms can help you reach those goals
That last bullet leads to my final—and very important—point about finding the right match: recruitment. For example, if you have a history of terrific special events, but your organization’s newly crafted and inspirational vision calls for more transformational fundraising, you’ll likely need to shift focus.
Not only will your activities change, but also those who carry them out will change, too. The match will no longer be appropriate, so some board members will roll off while new, better suited members will join you.
Giving Your Board a Makeover
Talk to your existing board members. Many will be relieved that you’ve asked for their honest opinions. They will either step up and agree to take on more or they will bow out gracefully. Either way, you win.
Research prospects. Just as you would research a donor prospect, know your recruits before you ever meet them. Know where else they have served, their giving history, and the extent of their network.
Embrace your organization’s vision front, back, and side to side. When you seek out new board members, you should be able to articulate your strategic vision and your fundraising goals without skipping a beat.
Don’t pigeonhole. Dream candidates can quickly become empty seats if they’re pressured into taking board positions they don’t really want. This situation often happens when corporations force their executives to join association or nonprofit boards “for the good of the company.” That dynamic is a recipe for disaster if the board member doesn’t believe in the organization’s vision.
The last word comes to us from ancient Greece. Nosce te ipsum. When it comes to creating a vision and a board to match that vision, know thyself. If you’re clear about what you hope to achieve, finding board members who match and raising the dollars needed to make your vision a reality will become second nature.