5 Important Tasks of a “Working Board”

Occasionally, I confidently am told by education or non-profit governing board members that they serve on a “working board.”  This statement is most often uttered as the follow-up to another less self-confident admission – namely that the board is not one that focuses on the topic of philanthropy.

During these conversations, I am reminded that the concept of a “working board” can get skewed by well-meaning but unhelpful board members.  Specifically, when board members accentuate the nobleness of “work,” they strangely leave out of their definition any aspect of philanthropic work.  As if getting more major gifts in the door in support of your mission is not “real work.”  Instead, the concept of a “working board” usually refers to members who provide their volunteer time as their primary gift to the institution.

The problem, of course, is not that being a “working” board is an ineffectual way for a governing board to operate.  The problem is that the highest, most effective form of “work” for non-profit boards occurs in the philanthropic vineyard!  The most important job a board member can do is to advance your institutional mission and vision by partnering with paid staff members to increase philanthropic gift income.

So, the next time you hear a governing board member lift up their “working board” status as a way to deflect the conversation from board giving and the board’s responsibility to provide philanthropic leadership for the institution, please feel free to share with them the top 5 ways all boards should “work:”

  1. Participate in a peer screen session and alert the institution to donor prospects who have annual, major, and/or planned gift potential;
  2. Arrange for an institutional leader to make a presentation at their local civic, community, church, workplace, or other venue;
  3. Accompany development personnel on cultivation and/or solicitation visits with those donors or prospects with whom they have influence;
  4. Host a dinner or event at their home, civic or country club, workplace, or other venue with the purpose to introduce new major donor prospects or board members to the institution’s leadership;
  5. When called upon, speak publicly with passion and authenticity about the reason why they are involved and the difference your institution makes in the world.

Showing up for board meetings, participating in committee work, and volunteering to assist with special events does not fully qualify as the definition of “board work.”  Instead, governing board members should be encouraged to help their institutions reach their far edge of promise by rolling up their sleeves and engaging in the real work of philanthropy.  Not only will the results be significant, but board members will find this work much more meaningful.


21 Advancement Truths

  1. The success of your ask was determined during the cultivation.
  2. Donors don’t give to institutions, they give through institutions.
  3. And they give through institutions to people they trust.
  4. Doing the fundamentals consistently is “the silver bullet.”
  5. Generous people don’t grow tired of giving, they grow tired of being solicited.
  6. When it is time to ask, be bold — ask for their best possible gift. Those you serve deserve that from you.
  7. You have a case for support only when you can concisely answer the question, “why should anyone care?”
  8. What your donors believe about your institution is far more important than what they know about your institution.
  9. In making your most effective case for support, keep in mind that too many numbers numb, but stories are stored.
  10. If you do not know the other causes your prospect supports and why she supports them, you are not ready to ask.
  11. With only rare exceptions, special events represent the most inefficient and ineffective way to raise money.
  12. If you want money, ask for advice. And if you want advice, ask for money.
  13. It’s not about you #1: Your job is not to strengthen your relationship with the donor.  Your job is to strengthen the donor’s belief in the goodness of your institution’s mission.
  14. It’s not about you #2: If a prospect tells you “no,” it is not a personal rejection.
  15. Engagement isn’t sending out the magazine. True engagement is the process of asking meaningful questions and actively listening to the responses.
  16. A gift officer can have many visits and not be successful. But rarely can a gift officer have only a few visits and be successful.
  17. Performance metrics are not the work, they are only a poor proxy for the work.
  18. Major donors dislike “wish lists.”  Strategic planning is the foundation of successful campaigns.
  19. How you treat donors after they make a commitment says far more about how you value them as people than how you treated them before they committed.
  20. The most robust and helpful prospect research is not done electronically.
  21. Giving is good.

AIM To Communicate Effectively

If your goal is to educate, engage, and delight more donors, friends, supporters, or funders through communication vehicles, ask yourself if the AIM of your message is on point.  For every written solicitation, every webpage, every special events invitation, every magazine article, and every newsletter story, etc., ask yourself if what you are communicating is:

Authentic – is the message you are communicating true and genuine to your institution?  Does the message affirm and support your institution’s mission, vision, and values?

Inspiring – is the message you are communicating motivating and encouraging others to action?

Meaningful – is the message you are communicating worthwhile?  Does what you are talking about make a difference in the world?  Does it matter?

When we communicate using the AIM framework, our messages are worth reading, they extend the brand of the institution, and they help broaden and deepen the base of supporters.


Annual Giving and Major Giving: Key Distinctions

If you want to enjoy strong results through your annual giving program, you should focus on educating/reminding people why your institution/program/service matters.  The well-crafted annual ask encourages people to look back on the value of your institution/program/service and reflect on its importance.  Donors make annual gifts to your institution because they have come to believe that the world is better today because of your work.  In other words, your institution makes a difference.

On the other hand, most successful major gift programs regularly lift the gaze of the prospect toward a horizon of “what could be.”  The well-crafted major gift request inspires prospects to look forward and imagine a promising future that will be shaped by your institution and based on their leadership giving.  Donors stretch to make major gifts to your institution because they have come to believe that their giving will provide for a tomorrow that is better than today.   In other words, your institution has great promise to make a difference.

More often than not, sustained annual giving is borne out of a reflex of generosity — a reflex that has been perfected through philanthropic branding and the shaping of personal beliefs.  On the other hand, major giving is borne out of a voluntary decision-making process in which the donor has come to believe that giving to your institution/program/service has the potential to change the world (or at least an important part of it!).

For both your annual and major giving programs, the more consistently your institution engages and solicits donors based on an understanding of these distinctions, the more money you will raise.








Writing Contact Reports That Matter

One of the most important and yet most misunderstood responsibilities of a development officer is to write helpful prospect contact reports on a consistent basis.  Most development folk understand that they should write contact reports, but only some recognize why they are so vital to effective fundraising, and even fewer grasp how to write them well.  Unfortunately, from a professional development standpoint, there has been little attention paid to this important component of our work.

That’s a big reason why I partnered with Academic Impressions to pen, “Writing Meaningful Contact Reports: A Handbook for Fundraisers.”  In this new book, you will find clear ideas about when to write contact reports, how to write them, and why they ultimately matter — to you and to strengthening your fundraising results.

The purpose of this book is to encourage you to look at contact reports in a fresh way and to give you and your team the specific tools and tips to make contact reports easier to write and more useful to the reader.  Ask yourself these questions to see if you could benefit from this book:

  • Do you wish the gift officers on your team wrote stronger contact reports more consistently?
  • Does your prospect management process need to be more effective?
  • Would it help your fundraising results if you had a better “system of contact reporting?”
  • Do you wish you had better “institutional/historical knowledge” about many of your donors and prospects?
  • Do you need to strengthen your system of performance metrics and gift officer evaluations?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, this new book will be helpful.  Because, “Writing Meaningful Contact Reports”  A Handbook for Fundraisers” is not just a book about making your contact reports better – it’s a book about helping you strengthen the culture of philanthropy at your institution and raising more money.

Give it a read and let me know what you think!


Which Story Are You Seeking?

When I was a higher education vice president some years ago, our institution was asking important questions about student retention.  We brought in experts from around the country to look at our retention efforts and implemented a number of first-year and curriculum-wide programs to help more students persist until graduation.  While we made some progress, I was troubled by one aspect of our approach to increasing student retention.  Specifically, our institution went to great lengths to interview students who were leaving or who had left in an effort to assess the factors that influenced their decision-making.

While the stories of those who made the decision to leave could be helpful, I offered at the time that we were missing a more important story.  Namely, what about the students who were staying, excelling, and having a fantastic experience with us?  What was their story?  Why were they delighted with us?

Understanding why people choose to join you, give to you, and become a champion for your cause is a powerful form of appreciative inquiry that helps to clarify your strengths and opportunities for explosive growth.  Conversely, understanding why people reject you, your programs, or your institution may encourage some leaders to go to great lengths to develop strategies focused on “fixing” your weaknesses.  This approach is the basis of “gap analysis” — determine the extent of the distance your service might be from “excellent” (i.e., “the gap”) and then work to close that difference.

The problem with “closing the gap” is that you may end up pouring a ton of creative energy and financial resources into enhancing your sub-standard areas, only to find that you are now merely “average” in those areas.  And “average” won’t create delight in your students, donors, or anyone else you serve.

You are better off asking questions that will help you understand the stories of those delighted with you.  Then, you can identify your institutional strengths and develop strategies that amplify those characteristics across the enterprise.   When you build on your current strengths you will attract more people who fit your preferred profile.


Solving The Wrong Problem

It is rare that the first problem presented in a team setting is the most crucial to solve.  In most instances, the first problem presented – usually in the form of a complaint – may have an urgent quality to it, but, represents only a symptom of a deeper, more fundamental issue that needs solving.

When complaints are raised, the freedom to ask questions becomes invaluable.  If questioning is not an appreciated characteristic of your team’s culture, the loudest complaint will get addressed first.  And, instead of dealing with the larger, more significant problems that led to the complaint, you will spend time racing to put out one fire then another.

If your team doesn’t encourage the asking of questions, you will solve the wrong problems – the symptoms.  Rarely will you pause to reflect on the bigger, more strategic issues causing those symptoms.   In essence, you will be employing the use band aids when you should be looking at more holistic treatments.

If you want to solve the right problems, encourage the use of questions in all circumstances.  A good and helpful question to start with is, “why do we do it that way?”  Hint:  If the first answer is, “because we always have,” you may quickly find that you are onto the larger problem that needs solving.


Aspirations, Angels, and Agreement

If your goal is to engage others and do work of substance and consequence, utilize the “Essential A’s”:

Aspirations – help others dream and establish the highest possible aspirations for your institution or program.  It’s easy to get distracted and discouraged in the weeds of work (which is why some people choose to live there, by the way).  But when we focus our energy, resources, and efforts on achieving compelling and meaningful aspirations, we re-energize ourselves, our colleagues, and our work.  Remind others regularly to lift their gaze away from tedious tasks onto the far horizon of promise.

Angels – appeal to people’s better angels by focusing their attention away from self-interest and comfort and onto the broader cause you are called to serve.  Yes, it is easier to “do things like we’ve always done them.”  And yes, it is most comfortable to keep the work routine and flow unchanged.  But, are we fully living into our mission and doing everything we can to reach our aspirations by keeping the status quo? Help others develop an ego for your institution that is bigger than their ego for self.

Agreement – work to identify what is agreed upon and move forward on those points.  It is easy to get derailed by focusing on the potential hurdles, weaknesses, threats, or disagreements that may (or may not) exist.  Remind others that you have much upon which you agree and work toward those aims.  Soon enough, the petty disagreements and trite reasoning for “why this can’t work,” will recede into the woodwork.

Doing meaningful work that truly makes a difference is simple, yet not easy.  By implementing the “Essential A’s” consistently, you surely will enhance the significance of your journey.  You will find, though, that others may not always show an interest in going with you.  Go anyway.


“They Are Going To Do Something”

When working with natural partners (such as presidents, other administrators, or faculty) and volunteers in major gifts, one of the most troublesome statements I can hear during major gift donor strategy sessions is, “They are going to do something.”

Almost always, what this seemingly positive statement actually means is something akin to the following:

“I didn’t ask the prospect for the specific gift amount we have been discussing, nor did I have a proposal on paper for them to consider.  Instead, I briefly mentioned something about the project in an off-handed type of way, they smiled, nodded, and said it was an important initiative.”

Sound familiar?

You may think that the reason the “they are going to do something,” statement is troublesome is because it usually means that an ask hasn’t actually been made.  And, yes, that is a problem.  On the whole, if you don’t ask for a specific amount, you won’t receive the prospect’s best possible gift.

But the real troubling aspect of the “they are going to do something,” statement is much worse than simply not asking.  When a natural partner or volunteer says of a prospect, “they are going to do something,” they may be attempting to put a positive spin on the fact that they didn’t actually ask for the gift.  It can be a statement made to proactively defend a poor solicitation.

So, if a suggestion is made to go back to the prospect and ask for a specific amount, the odds are high that this suggestion will get batted down quickly.  “Why would we go back to the prospect with an ask when I talked with them already about their gift?  That would be overkill.  They know about the project and they are going to do something,” would be a likely response.

The real problem with the “they are going to do something” statement is not that it means that a specific ask probably wasn’t made.  The real problem is that it can mean that a specific ask maybe never will be made.


An Open Letter To A Gift Officer

Dear Gift Officer:

Thank you for contacting me and asking for a first visit over coffee.  I was honored to receive your call.  And I especially was pleased that our schedules matched and we could meet on relatively short notice.

When you arrived at the coffee shop, your warm smile and confident approach were appreciated.  You struck me as professional and congenial all at once.  We sat, sipped our drinks, and small talked.  We covered the usual topics — the weather (yes, travel has been brutal recently), updates on work, and other bland topics as I recall.

And then you pulled out a neatly packed folder filled with information about your institution and began to update me on the latest news.  The information was superb.  The materials in the folder were impressively designed and communicated compelling plans.  You were deft in your oral recitation – covering all of the facts, figures, and statistics with nimbleness and ease.   You even brought me a pen!  It was a great presentation.

But, there was a problem.  I wasn’t looking for a presentation.  And I didn’t ask for the update.  It’s not that I don’t care.  My wife and I have increased our annual gifts for many years consecutively.  So, it’s not that we don’t care.  But, I was expecting a visit.  I thought you wanted to meet me, not pitch me.

You didn’t ask me any substantive questions about my work (which always strikes me as odd especially when gift officers know what I do for a living).  You didn’t ask me any thoughtful questions about my wife and family, even though both our names are on the gifts we give.  And you didn’t ask me any questions about our experience with your institution.   You wanted to tell me what was important to you, not ask me what was important to me.

Clearly, you knew your case for support.  But, you didn’t do your real job – which was to learn more about the person you were visiting – the whole person.

I was honored when you called me to set up our visit.  I took your invitation to mean that an institution that my wife and I care deeply about was acknowledging us.  I thought you were saying, “We see you!”

Instead, your very professional and prepared presentation left me feeling like you were saying, “We hope to see your next gift.”


Jason McNeal