Carrie Avery is both a foundation president and a volunteer fundraiser. In this First Person Nonprofit article she looks at fundraising from both angles:
Growing up in Southern California, I loved being a Camp Fire Girl: the beach camping trips, my uniform with its red neckerchief, earning beads by doing science experiments and helping elderly people . . . it was all good. Every year our group leader told us that if we wanted to continue to enjoy these privileges, we needed to do something for the Camp Fire Girls: sell candy. So each spring, I would trundle around the neighborhood pulling my brother’s red wagon behind me, peddling Mint Sticks (yum) and Fruit Jellies (kind of gross).
Like Camp Fire Girls on a spring day, many board members can think of many things they would rather do than ask people for donations to a nonprofit on whose board they serve. When is the last time you heard a board member say, “I just love development! Can I be on that committee?” I thought so. I myself would rather redraft the bylaws.
But the fact remains: in most nonprofits, board members need to fundraise to provide for the financial sustainability of their organizations. But how? There are many approaches, depending on the board member and his or her contacts, willingness, and available time. It also depends on the culture of the organization and whether or not they have development staff or a development plan.
Overcoming my fundraising reluctance
To overcome my own fundraising reluctance, I use the tactic of teaming up with staff to make personal calls on prospective donors. I’m on the board of a national resource center located on the East Coast that has a strong online presence. They want to raise funds from new sources in California, where I live. Here’s how we teamed up:
First, working with a senior staff member, we came up with a list of prospects at family foundations (she did most of this work). I let her know when I was available and she set up several meetings, most of them with people I know, although many only slightly. We had different goals for different visits: in some cases it was just to acquaint the prospect with the organization; in other cases it was to request a $1,000 grant. In a few cases we were seeking multi-year operating support in the $10,000 – $25,000 range. We made six visits over three days (no red wagon, though!). The result: one $1,000 grant, two $20,000 grants, and one commitment to make a $1,000 grant next year. We also had some truly interesting discussions and set the stage for future contact.
In a staff-board tag team, we each play a role. My role was to demonstrate volunteer commitment to the organization and talk about why its work is important to me. The staff person is the brains of the visit, the one who can answer detailed questions and follow up with additional information. It’s a good combination, and it’s a hundred times easier than if I had to do it alone.
From my point of view as a funder
From the funder’s point of view I can also attest that this is an effective fundraising method. In my day job as a staff member and trustee at the Durfee Foundation, I sit on the other side of the table. It is rare that I get to meet board members when I am on site visits, but I am always impressed by that extra show of dedication when I do meet one.
A couple of years ago, I went on a site visit to Circle of Friends at Santa Monica High School, which works with developmentally and physically disabled students who are isolated from the rest of the school community. Circle of Friends trains mainstream students and teams them up with disabled students to have lunch on certain days of the week. From this simple beginning, friendship and support develop, resulting in disabled students become integrated into the life of the school.
At this site visit, I enjoyed talking with the founder and the student volunteers. I was also impressed that a board member showed up, a man whose disabled daughter had gone through the program. His presence was brief, because as a volunteer he had to take time away from his job to come to our mid-day meeting, but he gave me a picture of the impact of this program on a family and the dedication it inspires. Circle of Friends received a two-year, $50,000 grant from Durfee to expand into more schools, as well as to hire a paid mentor to work as an organizational consultant. I can’t say that the board member’s presence was the deciding factor in our funding decision, but it certainly helped me get a strong and favorable experience.
The power dynamic shifts
It’s good for me to be both a grantmaker and a volunteer fundraiser. I learn some very important lessons every time I switch roles. Durfee is an endowed foundation, and we don’t need to ask for money. It’s easy to become complacent about how well we do our work because, frankly, no one is going to tell us otherwise. It’s good for me to be reminded of what it is like to sit on the other side of the table . . . it’s not always the most comfortable place.
For example, when I am seeking funds, the power dynamic shifts. Sometimes it’s subtle, a note of impatience or dismissiveness on the part of the funder. Sometimes the power imbalance is right in your face, like the time a potential major donor to a building project that would benefit inner city children walked into the meeting barking into his Bluetooth device, and continued his conversation for several minutes while we waited for him to finish. We didn’t even get the grant. I keep these experiences in mind when I?m meeting people in my foundation role. How would I want to be treated?
And a few practical tips from my experience in different roles:
Tips for executive directors: Ask all of your board members why they volunteer themselves to your organization. You may be surprised to discover some of the answers, and their stories could be helpful if you bring them on a fundraising visit. Not every board member will be an asset on a fundraising visit, but consider the ones who have potential and develop them. If you’re worried about giving up control or concerned that the board member’s presence would have limited utility, you might ask the board member just to pop in on a meeting to shake hands with the funder and say a few words.
Tips for board members: You know that you’re supposed to help the organization fundraise, and you probably feel guilty that you haven’t done enough. Tell your executive director that you are willing to go on donor visits, offer ideas for connections, but let the E.D. make the ultimate decision about what to do.
Tips for funders and donors: If a nonprofit executive who has an appointment with you asks if you would like to meet a board member, say yes. Meeting board members and learning why they are involved can give you a new perspective on the organization. It’s also good due diligence. After all, boards are an important component of the leadership of any nonprofit organization, and the more you learn about the board, the better you are able to assess the organization. And if you serve on a nonprofit board, volunteer to go with the executive director on a fundraising visit. It will offer you a new perspective on your work.
Finally, when I’m on a fundraising call, there are times when the prospective donor asks astute questions and provides a new perspective to me on the organization. Interactions like these make me a better board member. And there’s nothing like success to make me willing to do more fundraising. It’s a sweet feeling to hear from a donor that he or she will make a significant multi-year commitment to the organization — almost as good as getting that new patch to sew on my uniform.
Carrie Avery is the president of the Durfee Foundation, a family foundation based in Los Angeles, California. She serves on the Ethics and Practices Committee of the Council on Foundations. Carrie authored The Guide to Successful Small Grants Programs: When a Little Goes a Long Way, and serves on the boards of several community nonprofits. She is still a Camp Fire Girl at heart.