Note: This post is part III of a series of III in which I identify 3 separate fund raising myths that make us less productive. The first installment in this series focused on the myth of donors giving only (or substantially more) for restricted purposes. The second post discussed the myth that case statements which focus predominantly on explaining how gifts will be used are the most effective. This final installment will discuss the myth of expecting a wealthy non-donor to respond with generosity if she is offered a seat on your governing board.
You know the non-donor I’m talking about in this post. It’s the exceptionally wealthy one who stays close enough to your institution to be tantalizing. Perhaps he comes to events semi-regularly. Or she sends in a random gift every few years. The talk about this non-donor is always the same, “If we could only get her engaged!”
And so, at some point, someone within the institutional leadership structure suggests extending an invitation to this individual to join your governing board as an engagement strategy. If she says, “yes,” the thinking goes, she’ll understand that she’ll have to start giving more regularly and more generously. And, even if she doesn’t give generously right away, she’ll learn more about our institution and will be cultivated to give more. Surely, she will!
Except that is not the way it plays out. Almost never. Hardly ever. Instead, what ends up happening is that your governing board now has at least one member with great financial capacity who doesn’t give, or doesn’t give regularly, or doesn’t give up to his potential. This member causes heartburn for all involved in the solicitation process of the board. And, now, because most governing board seats have some tenure component attached to them, you will have to deal with this behavior for a predetermined set of years.
It’s frustrating. It’s agonizing. It’s like being married to someone who has never shown you that they truly love you.
Why is the process of inviting a non-donor to serve on your governing board a poor strategy, no matter how wealthy the individual might be? Simply put, because the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior (this predictor is not perfect of course, but, all things being equal, it is the most salient variable). Candidates for your governing board should express their generous spirit by being consistent givers, regardless of their financial capacity. This standard should be the minimum for your institution.
Recently, I was facilitating a board retreat for a client institution when I shared this concept with them. Before I could finish my statement about how using board seats as an engagement strategy almost always disappoints, one of the most senior members of the board shot his hand up, chuckled a bit, and said, “yep, we’ve done that one before!” The rest of the board laughed, letting me know I was hitting a point of some past frustration. “And how did that work out for you?” I asked quickly. “Not good,” he smiled and shook his head.
A seat on your governing board is too precious to extend it to those who haven’t yet fully shown their enthusiasm for your mission by giving regularly and generously. If you want to engage wealthy non-donors, invite them to events and visit with them regularly to learn more about their interests and values. Invite them to serve on an Advisory Council, a committee of some sort, or a focus group – but never your governing board.
It’s a good and thoughtful strategy to seek to engage wealthy non-donors, there just is no good reason to get married to them too quickly.