Board support — find the right fit


First, a given: every member of your nonprofit board of directors should be supporting your organization each year in a tangible way. Obviously it is not only the right thing to do and may be dictated by your bylaws, it is an essential governance practice to demonstrate to funders and donors.

So every board member writes a check based on whatever is appropriate and meaningful. The amount of a gift is not critical, but your ability to claim that 100% of your board members are active donors is paramount. Simple, right?

Not always.

For some organizations, it gets trickier. Here are a few considerations to help strengthen your policy and/or practice around this deceptively simple topic.

1. Something standard and public. When you are recruiting a new director and your board chair and/or ED is meeting with the person, it may be appropriate to identify a dollar amount up front, or a range. If your board has set a specific goal, written or unwritten, don’t make that information a surprise after the new director is elected.

2. A guideline or expectation. For sitting directors, most small and mid-size nonprofits only make the “100% participation” a requirement. However, your stage of development as an organization may mean that it’s time to set a guideline–a minimum amount–for the next budget year.

3. A confidential negotiation. Part of what makes this topic sensitive is that people obviously have different economic circumstances and resources. Often a director’s ability or willingness to provide support is a topic for a
confidential conversation with the chair and/or ED. It may be time to have this as a topic for board discussion instead of only in one-on-one meetings. Is it time for one board member to lead a formal, annual board campaign?

4. Membership and sponsorship versus a donation. Depending on the funding structure of your nonprofit, a director’s support may take several forms besides a personal check. Sponsoring your events or purchasing tables may be a given. The question is, does this support “count” as part of the director’s annual gift? This isn’t a right-or-wrong answer, but rather, something you should clarify as a group.

5. Heavy lifting on events versus a gift. You would not want focus on a board campaign to detract from the amazing help you may be enjoying from a board member on fundraising events. It’s just a question of how you calculate or credit that director’s involvement, and whether you are being as transparent and forthright as possible as a group about what is expected and how expectations are being met. Establishing up front that at least part of director’s annual support should be cash will also help you overcome the “…but I give you my time” argument.

6. In-kind versus cash. Alas, there is nothing quite like cash when you’re small and trying to strengthen the delivery of your mission. It may make sense to specify that each director provide at least a percentage of their annual support as cash. With in-kind materials, ideally the donation represents something you are saved from having to purchase-that is, something you would be buying if it were not for the in-kind gift. If a director provides a non-essential item that does not fit this tight definition, it may be lovely as a nice gift for your volunteers (for example), but should the item’s value be “counted” as annual support?

7. Business versus personal. Depending on your mission/industry and the community you serve, public sector employees may be a valuable asset on your board. However, it is difficult if not impossible for their “employers” to make a contribution. Be thoughtful about what you expect from these directors-their annual support, if you have a guideline or requirement, would probably have to come entirely from their own pockets. If you have other directors who work for corporations who are sponsoring your nonprofit and those sponsorships count toward the director’s annual goal, is that fair? Should a portion of a corporate employee’s support be from their own checkbooks?

8. Give or Get: You surely know the power of one well-connected director opening a single door for you that can make a huge difference in fundraising. That’s tremendous, but where does a board campaign factor in? Does this mean this director never has to write a check or buy a table?

9. Use a board grid so you can be clear on the role and contribution of each director. If your board has community and client members, it may well make fora strong and more engaged board overall. But your board campaign expectations should be adjusted accordingly. Some board members were not recruited for their wealth, after all. Again, this is not a right-or-wrong question, but set policy openly and communicate to all.

10. Transparency and trust. Overall, almost any kind of support a director can provide is wonderful and welcome. It’s only a potential source of friction if some board members are unclear about what they are expected to do, and curious about whether others around the table are contributing to the same level. Uneasiness about board support can erode the effectiveness and governance of your board, and thus hurt your nonprofit’s success. Take steps today to address these issues before they become a problem on the road ahead.

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