Fundraising by Boards Is Not Universally Accepted

Last week I had the opportunity to meet with a group of colleagues who were involved in fundraising for non-profit organizations in Israel. They represented a cross section of Israeli organizations that provide social, educational, health and welfare services to clients and members across the social and religious spectrum of the country. It was clear to me, and it would be clear to anyone who was sitting in the room that these people are committed to their jobs, as well as the organizations, and they have the highest professional values and great enthusiasm for their work.

The focus of the discussion was on the role of the board of directors in the financial resource development of the organization. Although a number of the people in the room had been with their agencies for years, it was not taken for granted that securing the financial sustainability of a non-profit organization was the responsibility of the members of the board as well as the professional staff. Many of the fundraisers reflected on a commonly held view that the volunteer leadership of the organizations they worked for gave of their time in attending meetings and provided their advice on a variety of issues, however, they did not perceive of themselves as having responsibility for providing for the financial security of the organization.

Although raising funds for non-profits is understood to be a function of the board of directors in the United States, it is not a universally accepted practice in Israel. During the last twenty years organizations in Israel have become more sophisticated and the long held practice of boards meeting once a year to hear “what the executive director accomplished last year and what she wants to do next year” has been questioned. More and more non-profit agencies have regularly scheduled board meetings, every 4 to 8 weeks, and these boards understand they have responsibility for the policies guiding the organization’s functioning.

Included in this acceptance of broader responsibilities is also being accountable for the financial oversight of the agency. Of course it means being aware of and signing off on the receipts and disbursements of the organization. In addition it has also meant taking on of the task of guaranteeing the financial viability of the non-profit agency. This not only means that the fiscal oversight, and insuring the proper financial procedures and controls are in place, but also participating in securing the funds needed for the ongoing provision of services to clients and members.

My colleagues were very interested in knowing how to begin to work with a board so they would be prepared to become involved in raising the funds needed. There are several approaches that can be adopted when working with the volunteer leadership. Each has its advantages and disadvantages and it is really a matter of finding the right fit between the specific way of working and what is both viable and effective given the organization’s culture.

One approach is for the board of directors to review their role and function in the organization and through the use of “retreat” or “planning process” to have the leadership take a good look at their purpose and how they are assisting the agency. One of the issues that is placed on the agenda is financial resource development, and the issue should be dealt with in a way that allows people to learn some new ideas and to express their reticence in fundraising. The process should provide the opportunity for the leadership to think about the implications of the volunteer leadership being involved in fundraising.

This process provides an opportunity for the board to think in new and different ways about their taking on the responsibility as “lay leadership” to raise funds. It has the potential of changing the culture of the organization. Simultaneously, if they are successful it will lead to new expectations for the annual efforts to raise funds. It is quite possible that there will be a real change in the way board members perceive their role and the role of the community’s leadership.

Another approach is to have the board agree to form a Financial Resource Development (FRD) committee that will assume responsibility to begin to raise funds. The committee will develop a strategy to supplement existing sources of income and will plan to approach individuals, foundations, and others. There will be on-going reports to the board of directors so they will develop an understanding of how the committee functions and what it has achieved.

It is important to have a dual focus on both “fundraising” and “friend-raising”, and the results of the initial activities cannot be measured in a specific dollar (or shekel) amount. This initial stage is concerned with developing an organizational presence and increasing the funds available for both the ongoing expenses and special projects. The process also provides the FRD committee with a series of experiences and allows them to develop a repertoire of new practices that can be used in the coming years.

Once the board begins to assume this responsibility, either through a decision of the board to begin fundraising or through an incremental process initiated by one committee, there will be a collective learning experience. The volunteer leadership will learn how they can have a major impact on the organization by assuming some of the responsibility for the financial sustainability by playing an active role in raising funds for the agency.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy 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.