Giving Guide: How charitable boards can foster a fundraising culture

Asking for money doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Here are several strategies to engage boards in a collective effort

Editor's Note

This article originally appeared in the 2019-20 edition of the Giving Guide.

Don’t let the relaxed and smiling faces in the gala event photos mask the truth. These days, when progressive charitable organizations seek dollars from donors, fundraising can be a keenly competitive pursuit.

Of course, not all charities prioritize or even engage in fundraising, but the ones thriving on that front are often recruiting expertise and finding ways to involve every board member in a collective effort.

Consider the case of Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services, an organization formed more than 40 years ago that is now once again making a concerted effort to raise funds. First steps included adding a fundraising professional to the board and creating an action plan to build a stronger fundraising toolkit.

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Nicole Poirier has seen the changes first-hand, having served in various capacities on the Rideauwood board for the better part of six years.

“Rideauwood uses a competency-based matrix to recruit new board members and there are many skills and aptitudes that go into making a good mix of board members,” says Poirier. “I would say in the current market, it would be wise for not-for-profits to have fundraising expertise.”

For the Rideauwood board, that expertise arrived with new addition Lois Graveline, a seasoned fundraising specialist whose core objective is to strengthen and deepen the relationship between donors and charitable organizations.

“You need to build, cultivate and steward relationships with many types of donors and volunteers and do so in an authentic manner,” Graveline says. “Donors – just like anyone else – can see through the polished protocol and the ‘no’s that ensue just make sense in those cases.”  

When a fundraiser genuinely believes in the cause, sincerity shines through in conversations with donors, says Graveline.

“You need to be intuitive and respectful of the donor’s interests and circumstances and be completely transparent,” adds Graveline. “Donors want to trust the fundraising professional and to know that they will honour their wishes and properly steward the donations.”

With Graveline’s help, Rideauwood has begun several initiatives to bolster fundraising at the board level, starting with a new member recruitment process where the expectations discussed include fundraising. 

Rideauwood is also pursuing additional board training so that all members feel comfortable explaining how Rideauwood programs benefit the community. Training of this nature can be extremely helpful because, as many boards discover, fundraising does not come naturally to all members.

“Asking for money can be an intimidating and frightening experience,” says Graveline. “At various points in my career, I too have had occasions where my knees knocked a bit.”

However, almost any board member can become a valuable asset in the fundraising arena with a little guidance and perhaps a shift in mindset, says Graveline.

“Taking the scary misconceptions out of the picture and just focusing on bringing donors on this amazing journey of helping people in need can be quite powerful and empowering,” she explains.

“Calling donors to say thank you, writing thank-you notes, or engaging their individual networks – there are lots of ways board members can get involved.”

Clear strategies and expectations

Teresa Marques is another fundraising expert and veteran charitable board member who knows that “fundraising expertise is as diverse as the charitable sector itself.”

Marques is president and CEO of Rideau Hall Foundation, a non-political entity that works closely with the Office of the Governor General and other partners on a broad range of community-building fronts.

Marques contends that fundraising charities doing exceptionally well have strong advocates and champions, but also work with “a clear strategy for how to best engage fundraising expertise from a volunteer standpoint,” she says.

“I’ve seen many examples where there is a disconnect between the board and a charity’s directors in fundraising,” adds Marques. “The charities getting it right tend to have very clear expectations of the volunteer champions who support them.”

Marques points out that such expectations may actually include having a separate cabinet or philanthropic advisory group engaged in fundraising, ideally with some board representation. 

Sometimes a group separate from the board “is a better structure to meet the needs of the organization while providing flexibility for the volunteers to engage in ways that makes the most sense.”

Build broad knowledge, then focus on what works

Fiorella Nicorescu has been board chair for the past four years at Adult and Family Literacy Organization (ALSO), a downtown community centre that provides free guidance and support toward improved literacy, numeracy and employability skills.

ALSO is a smaller entity that does not have in-house fundraising specialists – something that heightens the need for board involvement.

“When an organization does not have core funding or must bridge a gap between core funding and needed revenues, the board’s expertise and engagement in fundraising becomes quite important,” says Nicorescu.

Her experience at ALSO and two other registered charities has shown Nicorescu how broader fundraising knowledge among board members can help them recognize which initiatives are both a good and bad fit before they head down a particular path. 

And to motivate board members for fundraising, Nicorescu recommends examining how it factors into the organization’s mandate, objectives, and strategies.

“At ALSO, once we established a common view on where we want to go and how we want to get there, it became clearer how fundraising fits into the big picture,” says Nicorescu.

“We then engaged subject matter experts to educate ourselves on fundraising and narrow our focus on what would work,” she adds. “The education piece has been crucial to help board members start building confidence.” 

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