Engaging Board Members: AAA Then and Now

Use AAA (Ambassador, Advocate, Asker) to engage your nonprofit board members who are not comfortable asking for money.

Engaging Board Members: AAA Then and Now
14 mins read

Let board members choose how they will fundraise: Ambassador, Advocate, or Asker.

Philanthropy has been changing at a dizzying pace, but one thing that has not changed is our desire to more fully engage our boards.

It has been almost 20 years since a client called me as we were preparing for their annual board retreat, worried that she only had “seven askers.” I said I thought that was great! Outstanding. Record setting.

Impatiently, she said, “I know that’s not a problem. The problem is — what do I do with the other 32?”


A question that had been bothering me since I began working with boards suddenly crystallized: What DO we do with board members who won’t ask? And is asking the only way a board member can become engaged?

I asked what the “other 32” liked to do. She told me they liked to recruit new board members and loved stewarding donors.

I suggested we create a checklist of activities clustered around those they were already doing and let them choose the ones they wanted to do.

We were amazed: At the retreat, they checked lots of boxes. More amazingly, by the end of the year they had actually done most of them! We had unleashed their motivation, rather than prescribing what we wanted them to do.

The breakthrough for me was realizing that if you offer board members opportunities to enhance resource development without putting them in dreaded and awkward roles (like asking for money) where they do not feel confident, they respond, become engaged, and deepen their commitment.

Further, we found that if you praised and recognized those who made the connections and made the case, they began to grow into board members who might eventually feel confident about asking!

From this experience, what is now known as “AAA” — Ambassador, Advocate, Asker — was born. It is now utilized by hundreds of nonprofits in the U.S. and globally, and the basic premise is that all board members must play a role in fundraising; but exactly what that role is should be determined by them.

See below for a short survey to help you implement this proven, powerful, and even transformative board tool, along with definitions for each of the roles.

In the AAA program, there are several operating principles:

Everyone is an ambassador.

All board members must agree to be Ambassadors — no one is excused. They must learn the elevator speech and elevator question, make connections and “warm handoffs,” and report their intersections with potential supporters to those in the organization who can get the information into the files for further action.

Equip advocates with answers.

Because Advocates “make the case,” they have to be equipped with answers to tough questions and a deeper understanding of plans and vision. Often, people with legal or financial backgrounds find their board calling as Advocates.

Askers require training.

We are very foolish when we think that our board members know how to ask — even if they are experienced board members in other organizations, they need to be trained how to ask for YOUR nonprofit. The talking points are different; the culture may be different. They will lose confidence if they fail.

AAA is built around the idea that confident volunteers are effective volunteers: when they sign up to do one of the AAA tasks, they are indicating they know how to do that task and feel they can be successful.

My book, “The AAA Way to Fundraising Success,” was published in 2009, nearly a decade after all this began. It is short and sweet and board members can read and absorb it quickly. Now, I have a new companion book launching this month, “Transform Your Board Into a Fundraising Force,” which includes new information about AAA — think “AAA 2.0.”

Why “AAA 2.0?”: Because philanthropy is changing and it is harder to engage people.

They are confronted with the distractions of our fast-paced society, the ever-emerging issues that disrupt our ability to convey a clear and consistent impact message, and the fact that donors are more protective of their time than ever before.

They want shorter meetings, fewer meetings, and emails or letters with more white space than text. If we cannot fit it on a mobile or tablet screen, they won’t scroll further. They question the process we use to cultivate a prospective donor, wishing to hurry the ask and move on.

New generations who respond to social media fundraising and websites that raise quick money for social and personal causes are joining our boards.

They find our traditional ways of asking archaic. And stewardship, the essential ongoing step of relationship building, is viewed as time spent with no immediate result.

I see all of this as an opportunity. In an era of declining empathy and the barriers that our devices put between ourselves and others, I think that philanthropy can have its strongest moment as a catalyst for reconnection.

At its basic meaning, philanthropy is “love of humankind.” For board members, it begins with re-igniting (or igniting) their passion for your mission.

AAA 2.0 is about the “PQ” — the “Passion Quotient” — and why a high passion quotient is essential for full board engagement. Passion quells fear, inspires action, and unites boards around a common vision.

The pillars of nonprofits since our work began — mission, vision, and values — have never been more critical for board engagement, and they are directly responsible for elevated PQs in effective boards.

Philanthropy is based in values. Your board members are living the definition of “voluntary action for the public good,” so you must also demonstrate for them the most important value for our work: Gratitude.

It will increase their passion dramatically when they are thanked sincerely and regularly for all that they do.

Because AAA encourages board members to become engaged in tasks about which they feel confident, there is plenty of opportunity to show your gratitude. We know that fundraising is not about money; it is about relationships.

Ambassadors — and all of your board members can be confident Ambassadors — need to know that their outreach is making a difference.

Thank them at board meetings for connecting you with someone who has turned out to be an interested prospect or volunteer.

Thank your Advocates for representing you well with the city council or at Rotary. And continue to thank your Askers for successfully completing their assignments.

Raising the PQ of your board members through consistent connection with mission, vision, and values will elevate their desire to do their best for you. What more can we ask?

Below is a handout I use when working with boards — it can be tailored with activities and logo specific to your nonprofit.

Consult the AAA book for details about administering and interpreting. You can also download this handout as a Word doc: Sample AAA Survey or a PDF: Sample AAA Survey

Sample AAA survey: An opportunity checklist.

The following summary of the AAA program and the sample AAA survey is meant to be adapted for use in your organization. The survey should be tailored to reflect your nonprofit’s development plan and goals and feel free to insert your logo or other branding.

The survey should be revised each year to reflect new priorities and new interests on the board. It is a handy tool for discussing with board members how they want to be involved with your organization.

When you have created and distributed your survey to your board or volunteer group, collect the surveys, and then use the responses to structure the spreadsheet and work plan with your volunteers.

Introductory material:

What is a “Triple Board?”

A board with a AAA Rating is one where every board member is motivated to be an Ambassador, Advocate and/or Asker—these boards thrive when there is a culture of philanthropy throughout the organization.

The culture of philanthropy.

  • Involves the full “development team” — board, other volunteers, staff, and highly engaged donors
  • Commitment to mission, vision, and values
  • An understanding that each interaction with anyone in the community is part of the development process
  • Everyone thinks “development”
  • Staff, board, and other volunteers understand the importance and purpose of the organization
  • Visitors, employees, donors, and volunteers feel the culture when they interact with our organization

The Ambassador:

  • Has made an appropriate financial commitment to the organization
  • A role everyone needs to play
  • Has key roles in cultivation of prospective donors and stewardship of continuing donor-investors
  • Needs to be well oriented and coached in the message
  • Master of the “elevator speech” (and the “elevator question”)
  • Catalyst for donor-investor renewal

The Advocate:

  • Has made an appropriate financial commitment to the organization
  • Accepts assignments for strategic information sharing (formal and informal) about the organization
  • May advocate on a formal basis with city officials, foundation officers, another organization with which the organization is partnering or informally with colleagues or potential board recruits.
  • Is informed about the case for support and understands the strategic plan and vision
  • Coached on desired results of personal advocacy and handling objections

The Asker:

  • Has made an appropriate financial commitment to the organization
  • Enjoys sharing his/her enthusiasm for the organization and asking for investment
  • Well informed, well trained
  • “Matched” with prospective donors (or current donor-investors) for maximum possibility of success
  • Teamed with another board Asker or staff leader
  • Staff organizes the ask so the Asker’s focus can be on the single purpose of getting (or renewing) the gift
  • Benefits from the work of the Ambassadors and Advocates

Sample board member survey.

Adapted from Appendix C of “The AAA Way” book:

Please review the following roles and identify how you will be involved in fundraising as an Ambassador, Advocate, and/or Asker. You may select all that apply to you.

In making your selection(s), assume that you will be provided training, materials, and support to fulfill your role(s). Thank you for completing and returning this survey.

I will be an Ambassador:

As an Ambassador, I will:

  • Host a minimum of (#__) lunch/dinner meetings at home ___ or a restaurant
  • Bring interested friends and acquaintances for a tour of our facility (or other place people can visit). I will do this a minimum of (#) a year.
  • Bring interested friends and acquaintances to hear a program presentation from staff or an outside speaker.
  • Use my social networking resources to send out our organization’s web link with messages encouraging my friends to give and get involved.
  • Participate in up to (#) cultivation events this year.
  • Participate in “thankathons” (telephone calling to thank donors) after fund drives or special events
  • Become a member of the “gratitude” committee that will organize the thankathons and other stewardship programs.

Other Ambassador tasks I am willing to do (describe): ___________________________________________________________________

I will be an Advocate:

As an Advocate, I will:

  • Participate in program-based training about making the case for our organization so I can become a more informed Advocate.
  • Become part of a speakers’ bureau and/or offer to give talks to __ my service clubs (Rotary, e.g.) or ____church or at a __community center or at places chosen by the organization.
  • Use my social networking resources to send out information on the organization or an issue we are dealing with to my network of friends for the purpose of raising their awareness of our programs.
  • Use my writing, editing, and/or marketing skills to help us create/revise/rework our development and marketing materials and make sure that our messages are consistent across all materials we put out into the community.
  • Be part of the Governance (nominating) Committee to create strategic recruitment plan and messages and/or to assist with the recruitment and enlistment of new board members.
  • Other Advocate tasks I am willing to do: __________________________________________________

I will be an Asker:

As an Asker, I will:

  • Initiate conversations with people for the purpose of assessing their interest in making a gift, and then report on those conversations to staff and board leadership with the idea of participating with others in making the ask.
  • Write personal letters/emails and/or make personal phone calls to invite people to become donor-investors in our organization.
  • Use my social networking resources to make direct asks to my social network, encouraging them to give to our organization.
  • Team up with staff or other volunteers to make personal calls on potential and current donors.
  • Chair or participate on special events committees as a solicitor of sponsorships using my contacts or contacts provided to me.
  • Other Asker tasks I am willing to do: _____________________________________________________________________________

Please provide your comments or other ideas for getting involved (use reverse side if needed):

Note: When using or adapting this material be sure to credit the source:

Kay Sprinkel Grace
Transforming Philanthropy
PO Box 475578
San Francisco, CA

About the Author

Kay Sprinkel Grace is passionate about philanthropy and has devoted the last 30 years to the nonprofit sector, providing seminal thought, habit-breaking strategies, challenges to board and staff, and reengineering the vocabulary of fundraising. Her seven books and frequent speaking engagements across the globe reflect her restless quest for an ever-improved capacity of organizations to truly serve their communities. A Stanford graduate (BA, MA), she has built on a career in journalism and education to create a business practice and reputation that draw from the best of both. Her publications include the chapter Individual Donors in the newly released 2nd edition of Nonprofit Management 101.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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