Lead by example

Boards bring campaigns to life

In January 2021, The Lapin Group conducted a survey of Jewish lay and professional leadership and clergy across the country to learn and stay more current about the nonprofit community and their philanthropic and organizational needs and expectations. The feedback was clear: board development and engagement is forever challenging – before, during, and anticipated after COVID. 

It is something that we see and hear frequently, and as boards are constantly changing and – even as boards cede additional operational ground to professionals – the need for strong board development strategies remains critical and ever present. And yet with the resiliency, changes, and adaptations that we have all made and experienced, particularly over the past year – many of which we have explored and written about – the importance of engaged and intentional board leadership remains constant and true. We still expect and count on boards to consider visions, to weigh real life options, and to lead by example. We are pleased to share a few tangible real life experiences, of our board related work, in the context of planning a campaign.

The philanthropic environment is rapidly evolving, dictated by changes in society and by shifts in generational attitudes and social norms. During this time of disruption, change, and progress, organizations that look forward, yet remain true to values while embracing change, are often better poised to achieve success going forward.  

The following are five examples of situations we have encountered, personified through members of synagogue boards in the early planning stages of embarking on capital and endowment campaigns. Although these examples of attitudes and approaches are shared from the perspective of a synagogue, they are true to many nonprofit boards, and can be adapted based on the nature of the organizational community. These circumstances have been modified for the purposes of privacy and confidentiality. 

#1 – The one who already knows everything about fundraising. We all know this board member. They worked on a campaign in the past with another organization, and remember the last campaign the synagogue did 20 years ago. They “know” what works, and now have blinders on, blocking out any strategy they have not seen or may not (yet) understand. In this situation, it is critical to gain support from other board members first and to try establishing a relationship of trust and understanding. It is also important to respond to this board member with fact and “science,” not just impressions and imperatives. 

An important step… talk to people on an individual (or family) basis – even before a more formal Pre-Campaign Assessment. Let them share, you are there to genuinely listen and guide. Gather information that might help make the case, or alternatively tell you to hold off, which will inform decision making by executive and board leadership.

Caution… if early discussions have not yet been fleshed out, or even taken place, be aware that the expectations and desires of the community may not always be 100% in line with the perspectives of the core lay leadership, professionals, and clergy. Therefore, to strike a balance – and for credibility, it is crucial that everyone is and feels heard, and an emphasis on information and facts, and not a “fait accompli.”

If a framework for advancement is set, now based on data, experience, information, and stakeholder investment, you might present the data-driven game plan and invite this individual to take on a role in that context – if they are prepared to be involved. 

They will hopefully appreciate the opportunity to share their experience, and feel honored by the inside track, hearing the feedback and insight from peers, stakeholders, and the community. This, motivated by their seeing the buy in from other influencers and key opinion leaders, will hopefully open their thinking to the expectations of the synagogue community, and will help everyone be more open to contemporary strategies that will work best in today’s rapidly changing environment. 

#2 – The one who is convinced that a campaign is not possible, and publicly shares this opinion. This contrarian “knows” that the community does not have the capacity to launch a successful campaign because “no one will give to the synagogue” and “people in this community don’t have that kind of money.” Thus, “there is no way a capital/endowment campaign could be successful here.” 

To begin with, since this person may be well respected despite their determined views on this issue, we cannot, and ought not, dismiss their thinking. We need to understand where they are coming from and should consider their comments seriously. 

We need to be clear… are they expressing an opinion or stating fact? Do they know the trajectory of the congregation’s fundraising over the past year? Does this individual have insight or knowledge that is not readily or publicly available about prospective donors and other assets in the community? 

This speaks directly to the value of wealth research and data collection, and the all-important quiet personal discussions with prospective lead and major donors, stakeholders, and opinion leaders. Those conversations offer breadth of view and perspective that advance and enable decision making. This pre-campaign phase is where direction is set through the integration of intuition and intention with data and information. 

If there is a clear pathway that the community has to a prospective campaign, and a consensus for action based on information, this individual must now acknowledge and embrace the confidence of leadership and other stakeholders and the broader community to be transformed into a believer. If, in the face of this feedback from leaders, stakeholders, and the community, supported by the data, they continue to oppose, which is their right, their position needs to be acknowledged and the congregation must continue to advance. 

Consistent themes and messaging are essential to successful campaigns, and serve as the reminder that the imperative for a campaign and its goals are coming from the “top down” as well as from the “inside out,” from lay and professional leaders, clergy, and community members. Several early commitments will likely have been sought out, setting the pace for the campaign and demonstrating that, although ambitious, the campaign goal is realistic and achievable. At this point, we hope that they will want to get on the train and not be left at the station. 

#3 – The one who just shows up. This individual is present on the board and comes to meetings, but that is where the engagement seems to end. They do not step forward to take on any additional leadership roles, and rarely jump at opportunities to share opinions and perspectives. Assuming that there was a meaningful reason this individual was initially invited to serve, it might be a good idea to reconnect to that, and with them, one-to-one, inviting them to participate in an intentional and practical way. 

By being present, they are showing that they do care about the synagogue and its future, but are holding back from a more assertive posture; certainly not without being asked. They have ties to the institution, but perhaps need, and might be waiting for, individual touches to become more actively (re)engaged. By identifying a specific, clear, and tangible role for this individual, and others like them, you may find that they will make an impact. 

#4 – The one who does not even show up. Most boards have this member as well. They do not come to meetings, rarely respond to emails or calls, and, if asked, may cutely confess that they “did not even know they were still on the board.” It is often a challenge engaging someone who seems to demonstrate little apparent interest or motivation, yet may be important to the effort due to personal capacity and/or presence and reach into the donor community. 

What are their ties to the board and why do they remain a board member? Who is this person connected to within the synagogue community? Instead of skipping over this individual, especially now when the full participation of the board, and perhaps their participation in particular, is critical to making the compelling case to the community, it is advisable to determine an approach that engages them personally and (hopefully) passionately. Perhaps they are waiting to be asked; and, if so, why did it come to this? 

For this person, it is essential to actively engage with them. Who are their strongest relationships within the synagogue community who can deliver a leadership message? Is there someone who has a better “ear to the ground” and understands this individual and their positions on the questions on the table? Can a fellow board member or leader, who can speak to their relationship to the board and to the congregation, as well as to contextualize the upcoming campaign, so nothing overlooked nor taken for granted? 

If engaged, can this individual open a door for you with this board member, or perhaps be able to set a meeting with all the principals together? Understanding these issues and thus finding the most effective way to reconnect with this person and with their original reason for agreeing to serve on the board, or perhaps an evolved purpose, may be key to them reemerging and maximizing their value. 

#5 -The one who knows everyone, and “everything about everyone” – the “institutional memory.” This board member is critical to have “on your side” and is important to carefully engage early in a meaningful and appropriate form. To do that, it will be vital for this person to be clear on the consistent campaign themes and message, so the campaign goals and priorities are in sync and not lost in a game of broken telephone as the campaign becomes more present throughout the community, especially among lead donors and influencers. 

Their institutional knowledge is incredibly valuable, particularly if it can be captured early, and streamlined to fit within campaign messaging and goals. A campaign is an opportunity to bring the community together and align the history and legacy of the congregation with the vision for the future. Effectively engaging this board member can be a way to credibly articulate these connections to the community.

Perhaps this member could be engaged as part of an expanded asker team that is tasked to introduce those who may not otherwise be connected to a campaign or deeply engaged in the congregation. If this individual’s name on a leadership roster will be compelling to involve an important segment of the community, would they be appropriate as a leader? If not, having a more sharply focused campaign role may be beneficial. Depending on their ability to maintain confidentiality, they may be effective in preparation for and strategizing the sequencing of asks.

When embarking on a capital, endowment, or other special campaign, having 100% board participation, with each member at their own place of capability, is key to effectively making the case to the rest of the community. With that support, the campaign is positioned for success when publicly launched to both the greater synagogue and broader community.  

Board work is an ongoing process, and is both challenging and fulfilling. It is important to remember that an engaged board is critical. And when messaging, goals, and strategy are well planned, aligned, and clear, support among board members and beyond will generally follow, thus mitigating the challenge of navigating individual interests and agendas.  

A campaign can be a wonderful and rewarding organizational opportunity. When well-planned and effectively implemented, it focuses energies on building and strengthening community, advancing leadership, tangibly contributing to the common good. It starts with an effective strategy for individual engagement beginning with the leadership and a board whose messaging and members radiate outward. Gaining their investment (financially and passionately) from the start is the key ingredient in the recipe that achieve success. 

Avrum Lapin is President at The Lapin Group, LLC, based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a full-service fundraising, and management consulting firm for leading nonprofits. For a full bio, please visit the TLG website here.