Right now, somewhere, some nonprofit board member is about to say something that goes more or less like this: “I know we need the board to be better at fund raising, but I’m not sure we have the right people for that. What we need are some heavy hitters. Movers and shakers with deep pockets and big Rolodexes. That’s the only way we’ll ever be able to raise serious money.”
And off they go, usually ending the rant with a brainstorming session about who on the board has connections to prominent individuals and how they could be enticed into joining the board.
It’s an alluring idea. People give money to things they’re connected to, don’t they? And being a board member is a close connection.
You’re always reading about people who make bazillion-dollar gifts to hospitals and universities and other places where they’ve served as board members. So a nonprofit that could assemble a dream board—maybe Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and Martha Stewart, for starters—would have no trouble raising money, right? (For that matter, it would also know the right hors d’oeuvres to serve at an early autumn semi-formal outdoor brunch.)
Despite its appeal, the idea that it takes heavy hitters for an organization to be successful at fund raising is a myth. And not the benign, literary kind of myth that helped primitive people make sense out of a mysterious world. It’s the insidious, bad kind of myth that encourages boards to be lazy and complacent and executive directors to waste valuable time doing the wrong things.
Not to say that it isn’t a good idea to invite influential people of means to serve on your board. It is, if the prospective board member has been identified through a thoughtful nominating process, is passionate about your cause, and has the time to commit to board service. And not to suggest that board members won’t become major donors, or that major donors shouldn’t be invited to serve on the board. Those things can and should happen.
The problem is that the most prominent and sought-after board members in any community are most likely already overcommitted on boards and besieged by requests for money. They may agree to join your board but end up missing most of the meetings. They may be wary of turning over their contacts or asking their friends for money because they’re involved with so many organizations and causes that yours can’t be a priority or because they know their friends will eventually ask back and they don’t want to become overextended.
Beyond these problems, which are significant, the myth of the heavy hitters encourages “regular” board members to believe that they can’t be effective fund raisers—that it takes millionaires and superstars to raise serious money, so why bother with their puny efforts?
This just isn’t true. To become better at fund raising, boards need committed members who have a clear idea of what’s expected of them and the time to follow through on their assignments. They also need a compelling case for support, a realistic fund-raising plan, and the capacity to execute the plan, which includes excellent staff support for the board. Without those things, even a board stacked with heavy hitters won’t very good at fund-raising. And with them, heavy hitters can be optional.