Fostering an Important Relationship: Bringing the Chair and the Donor Together
Last week, I accompanied, G, one of my clients from abroad, to meet with an Israel-based organization she funds. The director of the organization had arranged a wonderful site visit that included visiting one of the agency’s youth clubs and meeting with a number of people such as the supervisor of the network of clubs, the coordinator of its youth club and a number of the club’s young participants. The schedule was perfect and the use of time could not have been designed more efficiently.
The director thought of every detail and even arranged for A, the new chair of the board, to pick up my client and me and drive us to club for the site visit. After introducing himself, A took the drive to the site as an opportunity to brief G about the developments he had planned in his new role as chairperson. He was very direct and enthusiastic and had many wonderful ideas for what the agency should be doing and how he would assist them in achieving these goals.
In particular, he was very excited about the revitalization of the board of directors and shared how since his appointment a month ago, he had been working with the director to identify new people who would be willing to invest time in strengthening the organization. As he described the new members of the board it was clear he had invited a number of “high powered” and successful professionals from a variety of fields and areas of expertise with the financial capacity to assist the organization. A was quite enthusiastic and confident that all he planned to do would succeed in both strengthening the present functioning of the organization and set the groundwork for future expansion.
After about 15 minutes of G listening carefully to everything A said, G responded, “I think your plans are wonderful, but how do you know the organization can really cope with everything you want to institute? I am really surprised you did not call me when you assumed the position of chair of the board and say, “G, I have just assumed the responsibility for being the chairperson of the board and I would like to know about your experiences. Please share your thinking with me about the agency’s capacity for development and expansion. Maybe you could have learned something from my experience over the last several years.”
A was stopped dead in his tracks. He did not know how to respond. There was silence in the car for a few minutes as he took in G’s very important and profound statement. To begin with, G reminded us of the important role committed volunteers play in the ongoing development of an organization that goes beyond financial support. Beyond that, this anecdote underscores why board members should reach out to donors and volunteers as standard protocol. It’s not a good move politically and strategically for a new chairperson to not reach out to active laypeople.
There are many donors who want to be more involved and who do not want their connection to be limited to writing checks. Limiting the donors’ personal and ongoing connections with the organization means losing an important opportunity to benefit from their commitment and often, their expertise. In this case, the donor was reminding the new board chair that she was willing to be involved beyond her financial support and he should take advantage of her offer to share her knowledge of and experience with the organization.
In addition to wanting to be involved there is also a matter of offending the donor. G felt overlooked and this can be very easily corrected if A had called her up when he started as chair to introduce himself and hear about her experiences and views on improving the organization. This would have forged an important relationship and would have given G a sense of respect for her involvement in the organization. The focus is on establishing a strong working relationship and there is diplomacy involved because the new board chair is still entitled to follow his own guidance. These relationships are always a bit tricky.
How many of us have thought to suggest a volunteer leader speak with donors when they begin working in a volunteer role in an organization? How many of us who are donors have thought of offering to meet with a newly appointed board chairperson of an organization that we support? It is something that we might take for granted but, as we see from this anecdote, it is not always standard practice.
There is an important “take away” from this experience and it can be used to guide the practice of nonprofit organizations to cultivate the donor’s connection to the nonprofit. When a volunteer leader is appointed to the position of the board chair then a meeting should be arranged with the significant financial supporter of the organization. The volunteer leader should suggest this as there is an understanding that this is part of the responsibility of the chairperson of the board. It is even advisable for the organization’s key leadership, as in an executive committee or steering committee, to participate in the meeting with a key donor.
If it is not on the volunteer leader’s agenda soon after his or her appointment to the new role then it is ideal for the director to encourage such a meeting. At times, especially when the director has had a long-standing relationship with the donor, it is appropriate for him or her to participate in the meeting. The director is the “link” between the volunteer leader and the donor. These meetings strengthen the connection between the significant donor and the volunteer leadership of the organization. Utilizing the opportunity to bring these people together will not only strengthen their connection to the organization but will also provide them with the opportunity to get to know the volunteer leadership that is working for the best interest of the nonprofit organization.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.