Volunteer Led – Staff Driven – Major Gifts and Your Board

by Marcy Heim on July 26, 2023

Heim flowers

Can you believe we had 50+ at our home this weekend! The Heim Family Reunion! I was MOST excited about my gardens. All those nights Ken and I watered no matter what! It was SO worth it!  

Last week I had a chance to reconnect with a good friend, client, and active board member.  Let’s call him Paul (not his real name). Paul is a successful investor with a passion for helping others. He’s a major donor. He’s set up a 7-figure estate gift. Plus, he’s an active board member and volunteer – serving on several local non-profit boards. He’s engaged, invested, smart, and willing to dig in and talk to others about getting involved and supporting a cause.  I am a big fan.

Paul called me after hearing me teach my 3-sentence ask at a conference. Why didn’t ALL board members have this tool?   And my Artful Cycle of Successful Relationships? Indeed!

We worked out several presentations with board/volunteer groups he served with. They went well. By this time, I connected with some of the staff, too.  With one organization, the ED is bright and talented but, like many ED’s, ran the place AND was also responsible for all the fundraising. Paul and his fellow board members were pretty much on their own. The ED tried to participate as much as possible and the national organization provided “coaches.” In reality, there was not much help creating that inspiring donor journey – that joyful giver. They also lacked clear and vibrant giving options.  Sure, there were impact stories – lots of them. But those important messages that help communicate what “the money does – and REALLY does” were murky at best.

It's not about the money...

On another board Paul serves on, board members are supported the entire journey by the leadership and a dedicated fundraiser. Board members introduce their influential and capable friends to the staff who jump in and shepherd the process, WITH THEM.  They have clear options to invest in at all giving levels. They experience great success.

When we talked, Paul just sort of shrugs at the mention of Board 1. “We just don’t get much traction.” He’s excited about Board 2. “Every introduction I make we end up with someone new getting involved and making a gift! We are really making headway.” 

Here’s the point. Paul doesn’t change as he serves on different boards. He’s the same guy, with the same great talents and dedication, similar organizations. But, he has a very different volunteer experience.

What creates success for a board member in fostering Major Gifts?

Must-haves for Your Board to be Effective Major Gift Ambassadors!

1.    Board members are not expected to be major-gift fundraisers.

They ARE expected to understand the process, be connectors, help show appreciation, and participate in engagement activities.  They are not expected to create or manage development relationships.

2.    The organization has an Executive Director/CEO that understands their role in major gift development.

The ED/CEO is to support major gift relationships as managed by the development professional.

The ED/CEO’s role is to create an inspiring strategic vision, be clear on the staff, facilities, etc. needed to realize the vision and project competency to deliver the vision internally and externally.

3.    The Executive Director/CEO prioritizes development in the annual budget for the day-to-day.

What you focus on, you grow. The ED/CEO who understands major gift development insists on a few key practices:

  1. The development professional is at every Board meeting and has full opportunity to engage with the board.
  2. The ED/CEO reminds the board often of their responsibilities to make their personal financial investment, support of the development professional and show their appreciation for those who have given.
  3. “We don’t have the budget to hire a development professional.”  Even a small budget can make room for a part-time development professional.  Care must be taken to not make this position marketing or annual fund – rather a true relationship-builder who can work WITH the Board.  The ED/CEO must prioritize the investment.

4.    Board members who are invited to serve have a clear understanding of their role in giving and inspiring generosity.

In my University of Wisconsin decades, we called this Volunteer Led-Staff Driven.  (It’s also what I cover in my board workshops!)  Simply put, Board members are strategic partners. They create connections, provide their own gift first, and can talk about giving priorities. Staff help craft the best actions and ensure that the relationship moves forward.  Board members are not expected to speak an ask – but may go along on the call to provide testimony of their own joyful and meaningful giving experience.

5.    Setting expectations and results.

Donors want to give to their passions, their way on their timeline. BOTH Board members and staff need to understand this! But the staff member uses every conversation and touch to discover the donor’s passion and vision with the organization’s to find the perfect giving option. It’s important to have activity metrics for your BOARD members – not just money goals. They are provided with simple and clear one-pagers that lay our major giving “buckets.” 

6.    Board members share their actions at every board meeting.

They share call stories. These are relationship stories, not data fields. Success is celebrated in terms of what the money DOES!

The relationship with the board members can be a very productive one. Remember they are unpaid partners. These same partnerships are possible with faculty, team heads, program staff, etc. Everyone involved with the organization can be an ambassador with the help of the development staff. Enjoy!

Invest in JOY®

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