Boards Are People, Too
by James Plourde
Boards don’t give money to the nonprofit organizations they govern. Individuals who serve on boards do.
Why the distinction?
Because it creates the correct paradigm for how development professionals should be approaching their board members for philanthropic support and measuring outcomes.
If I ruled the nonprofit universe, I would ban the term “board giving” from our lexicon when it refers to the total dollar support from the board from one year to the next.
Here’s the problem: Say collective board giving jumps from $90,000 to $110,000 in a given year. Success, right? But what if that jump is attributed to a new board member stepping up with a gift of $30,000 and the remaining board members, who last year collectively gave $90,000, deciding they are now off the hook and dial it down to a collective $80,000. Would you say that your board giving is moving in the right direction?
The reality is that the “board” is not a single-brained collective moving in some sort of unified philanthropic direction. They are individuals, each differently blessed with financial assets and each grappling with life challenges, such as aging parents, financial setbacks, divorce, kids in college, just like everyone else. And, as the illustration above shows, board composition is constantly shifting. This makes a strictly dollars raised criteria not very helpful in gauging whether you are maximizing the philanthropic potential from each of your board members.
What would be better tools for measuring board giving? How about these:
- Each board member needs to give a gift annually. This tried-and-true measurement must be a stated criteria for any person asked to join a nonprofit board in the 21st century.
- Each board member commits to including the organization in his/her will or through another planned giving vehicle. Achieving that goal is fairly pie-in-the-sky, but it is not unrealistic to set a goal of having a personal, intentional conversation with each board member about this way of giving.
- Each board member commits to placing the organization within the top three of all the nonprofits they support. Again, this provides a great place to have that intentional conversation with each board member about where your nonprofit ranks on her or his priority list, and what it will take to move it up the ladder.
You’ll need to develop benchmarks accordingly. Let’s say currently only 75 percent of your board members give annually; 10 percent have a planned gift in place; and 25 percent have your organization in the top three of their philanthropic priorities.
A three-year benchmark might be 100 percent annual support; 20 percent with a planned gift and 35 percent in the top three. A five-year benchmark might be 100-30-50. An every-year benchmark is to commit to having a one-on-one, personal conversation with each board member about her or his philanthropic support.
These benchmarks (tailored and scaled to the size of your nonprofit and sophistication of your development program) can be pursued and realistically attained regardless of the relative wealth of your board members and regardless of the composition of the board at any point in time. It will also maximize giving for the board you have now, not the one you had last year or five years ago.
Stop looking at your board as a single entity. Start looking at the individuals who comprise your board, and begin approaching the task of “board giving” from this perspective.
In doing so, you will get the greatest support possible from your board as a collective and move much further toward your ultimate goal – creating a strong culture of philanthropy within all levels of your organization for generations to come.
James Plourde is a Senior Consultant, The Collins Group, Seattle, WA.