This Capital Motion Blog post appeared as an article in the February 27th edition of Massachusetts Nonprofit Network Sector News Nonprofit 411.
Nonprofit boards of directors have two key areas of responsibility: governance and fundraising. Governance has a set of responsibilities that are required and must be completed by each board. Fundraising could be more generally described as overseen by “tradition.” For a whole host of reasons, the topic of fundraising by boards is often both fraught and not openly discussed, making it the proverbial elephant in the room.
While the activities of governance are fairly well defined, there are as many ways to carry them out as there are boards, standing committees, leadership teams, and organizations. Some approaches work quite well, while others are opportunities for improvement. There are many ways to create structure around improving governance models for organizations. Board and board-leadership communication are also often areas of opportunity for improvement, and many organizations actively work on nurturing these processes.
On the other hand, both board members and nonprofit leaders can experience frustration about the challenges of the fundraising component of the board members’ role. There seems also to be less clarity about how to proceed positively. The traditional approach most boards have taken is to give board members a personal “give” (donation) goal, and often to establish a “get” (donation they are asked to obtain from others) goal as well. There also exists an expectation of going above and beyond those goals to obtain additional donations whenever possible.
This system works well when board members have the financial resources to give personally and the networks from whom to “get” support. This system also works well when the information and tools from their nonprofit are in place to support making the requests confidently, and when the board member feels comfortable discussing other people’s philanthropy that results in donations. When some of these pieces are missing, challenges can arise.
Rather than positioning board members as just “fundraisers,” which may take them outside of their comfort zones, we recommend a positive and proactive approach that takes advantage of where they are in their own worlds.
By broadening part two of the board role beyond fundraising to ambassadorship, we accomplish several things. This language frames what is happening more appropriately to include telling the story of the nonprofit, which requires learning and deeply understanding the story and programs of the nonprofit. It also reframes the activity more broadly than just, say, selling event tickets, to include the idea of helping others identify where and how they would like their philanthropic dollars to go. This is how development professionals think about what they do. It also includes the idea of developing productive relationships that go beyond just dollars and that may also result in other kinds of fruitful partnerships for the organization: for example, gaining contacts that may support program delivery, its public policy work, or other elements of mission delivery.
The concept of ambassadorship broadens the role of board member beyond that of individual donor and fundraiser and opens the conversation to a more productive partnership at a leadership level. This, in turn, has the potential to encourage others in that ambassador’s circle to consider why this charity is so important to that ambassador. That is, after all, how philanthropic decisions are born and nourished.
Lisa A. Cohen is the CEO of Capital Motion, an advisory firm that works with mission-driven organizations and provides strategic planning and board development services; engagements develop, grow, and support organizational capacity for sustainable mission delivery over time.