This is not a typical post.
In fact, technically speaking, it’s not a post at all. More than anything, it is a collection of remarks – “memorable” remarks– we have heard any number of times with regard to the poor/inadequate/erratic functioning of the board of directors of an organisation.
I presented a selection of these sayings a while back, during a lecture for the “Talenti per il fundraising” program, organised by the CRT Foundation in Turin (create link).
I wanted to encourage the participants – about 60 under-35s who want to make fundraising a profession – to think about the way the words we say define the boundaries of our world and can sometimes prevent us from seeing what lies beyond them.
(This is a question that has always intrigued me. Books could be written about it – indeed, they have been: run an internet search on the famous observation of German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, from his Tractatus logico-philosophicus: “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. The results could be interesting…).
So here are some of the remarks I regularly come across in my job. I’ll give them to you unvarnished, with a brief comment:
– our board of directors? No response.
Ok, so what do we do? The situation is this: we can decide whether to try and change it or to raise the white flag.
But since we’re fundraisers and accustomed to never throwing in the towel, we can try and see how to unblock the situation, starting with our own role.
For example: are we sure the directors know what’s expected of them?
Obviously, if an organisation has a chief operating officer or a secretary general, he or she is the person primarily responsible for raising the awareness of the board of directors.
But we can make a contribution too, at the very least by trying to understand the reason for the lack of activity.
On several occasions, I have encountered behaviour that, to say the least, I found odd (to be politically correct) – in other words: apparently unconnected with fundraising.
Apparently. Because, when you looked deeper, what emerged – almost always – was that the people concerned were in good faith, they had been told nothing about the role they were to play as directors, the commitment they would be required to make for the strategic development of the organisation, their duties and/or the expectations.
Of course, it’s not always like that. Even so, it’s worth trying to understand the reason.
And there’s only one way to do this, especially when you’re working in a small organisation: talking, explaining and, above all, listening are – in reverse order – the three most important skills a fundraiser should have!
This doesn’t mean talking, explaining and listening in general. It means doing so with reference to the mission and the future of the organisation, to what – in your opinion – the board of directors should do to facilitate the work of the staff. Clearly, in a non-accusatory tone, with a sincere desire to understand and be understood.
Some interesting things could emerge, if you know how to listen and to read the context – isn’t this one of the fundamental skills of a good professional needs?
– there are 5 directors (or 7, or 17, even 21, as happened to me once, the number isn’t important), but we always see the same 2 or 3 (or even 1, usually the chair).
The question that springs to mind in these cases is: why? And I’m not interested in vague, generic answers – if I am to work effectively in my role as a professional consultant, I need as clear a picture as possible about the situation to be changed. And I think the same also applies, perhaps in slightly different terms, to an internal fundraiser.
There’s always a reason for an absence, a silence. Without straying into the realms of psychology, it has to be investigated.
Were the directors absent due to other commitments? (but can this really always be the case?).
Or are there too many meetings? (I have known boards that meet 3 or 4 times a month: this may be too much, when you’re talking about voluntary directors with other external commitments).
Or – and this is an issue I’ll talk about in a specific post because it deserves to be examined separately – are the board meetings boring/repetitive/hardly ever decide anything important or nothing that comes close to the heart of the organisation’s mission? In this case, I’m not going to beat about the bush: frequently, very frequently, engagement is low, very low. Not out of malice, obviously, but simply because of an approach that is uninterested or superficial, in good faith.
I’ve seen board meeting agendas that wouldn’t even get me out of my chair.
I’ve listened to reports that are so boring they would cure the most hardened insomniac.
I’ve read reports on the fundraising plan that would kill the enthusiasm of the most passionate fundraiser (not of the donor, but before that: of the fundraiser).
Where is the passion, the love for the cause in these cases?
It can’t just be turned on for fundraising campaigns, at events, in social media posts. The internal climate is vital and is the first step for an organisation that works, that generates passion – and we all know, don’t we, that without passion fundraising goes nowhere?
So: can we change something in our approach to the directors that hopefully will reawaken their enthusiasm?
Perhaps simply by illustrating our campaigns, during board meetings, in terms of their impact, how they have changed the lives of people (places, animals and everything else the non-profit is concerned with) rather than just providing a list of numbers? By drawing out the passion, which is substance (numbers) and form (enthusiasm, engagement).
Or by directly involving the directors – if they’re there, there must be a reason – by asking them for their opinion, a suggestion, an observation on difficult or tricky questions. Involving them in fundraising, development, strategy, giving these words body and substance so they’re not just a fundraising exercise or a numerical result to be reported to the people who approve the financial statements.
– I have no relationship with the Board
Now on this point, I have to make a qualification: since I’m a consultant, it is usually the chair or the board who approaches me So my relations with boards are always very meaningful from a quantitative and qualitative viewpoint, because otherwise I couldn’t do my job.
However, the absence of a relationship between the fundraiser/fundraising office and the board is one of the things I hear most frequently.
If you’ve read the post on the board and fundraising, you’ll know my views on this, and I won’t repeat them here.
If the question is: is the absence of any kind of contact between the fundraising office (its manager)/the fundraiser and the board damaging for fundraising? My answer is yes, even when there’s a chief operating officer or secretary general who undertakes to report on fundraising strategies and campaigns to the board. This answer could perhaps be mitigated when the chief operating officer or secretary general is someone with direct fundraising expertise, because in that case he or she is familiar with the thinking, techniques and underlying reasons for the activity. This doesn’t mean that otherwise it can’t be done, of course not: but you run the risk of further “dulling” the board’s interest in development (and in fundraising), relegating it to a simple activity of raising funds. And we already know that much more is involved.
In medium-large organisations in particular, the directors are often not personally acquainted with the person responsible for fundraising.
A really quick and easy solution is to organise a short presentation of the fundraiser/office during a board meeting. I suggest this because, having tried it on a number of occasions, it has always stimulated the board’s engagement with the issue (perhaps not of all the directors, but one step at a time takes you to your destination), their involvement (there’s no substitute for face-to-face meetings: the level of interest and “feeling of participation” rises immediately), their awareness (from now on, they will no longer be able to ignore the existence of you and your fundraising).
This first short selection of remarkable sayings ends here.
I’ll be publishing other posts on this; meanwhile, if you have some “memorable remarks” you would like to share, I’ll be happy to include them in a future article and, if you are agreeable, perhaps to give you some suggestions.
Until next time!