The Fundraiser - Practical advice and insight for the charity sector

Posted in Special Focus Major Donor & Philanthropy, General Fundraising Volunteers, Donor Management & Behaviour, Charity Management

The key ingredients for development board success

Does your charity have a development board for fundraising? Get it right, and it could take your income to a whole new level. But there are pitfalls to avoid. Jenny Daw investigates...

As a concept, development boards have existed for 10 to 15 years, and were first initiated as a means for larger charities with engaged supporters to bring in talent from professional advocates to a board scenario. These individuals work on a voluntary basis and are tasked with developing new ways of raising money.

Explaining how development boards work in practice, Matt Cull, Deputy Director of Fundraising at Blue Cross, says: “Each member should sign up for a period of time (say three years) to be responsible for securing a set amount of money each year. This could be £50,000, £100,000 or £250,000. To raise these large amounts, board members could host an event, ask their contacts to donate, get their business involved or simply give the money themselves.

“Ultimately, you want a development board to bring in huge amounts of money and introduce leads that you can develop, so that more money can come in long term.”

Crucial influence

Today, development boards have a central role to play in fundraising, certainly when an organisation is running a large campaign or has other transformational fundraising plans. “Their volunteer leadership in raising a charity's profile and engagement within circles of wealth and influence, along with their strategic guidance, is tremendously important”, says Emma Whitcombe, Director of Philanthropy and Partnerships at the MS Society.

Development boards have proven lucrative for large organisations like the MS Society, as well as other big names like Cancer Research UK, NSPCC and British Heart Foundation, who have used their status and brand to make them work very successfully.

This fundraising model has been adopted by most of the big arts and heritage charities too, who by their nature tend to have more major donors than most other types of charity. For Katie Milton, Development Director at Ovalhouse Theatre, a major part of her job is to drive the charity’s development board members.

It is certainly worth the effort, she says. “For example, our recent gala dinner raised £50,000. Without the development board, it may have been half of that. And if one particular member hadn’t been on the board, we wouldn’t have had the event – he got us the event for free at a top Mayfair hotel, which helped us make every penny go towards the evening.”

Ovalhouse Theatre’s development board includes a specific property-focused section to help maximise its assets. “We have an asset in property valued at £6.4m. The property section of our development board saw that this value could be improved upon. We organised an event, with the help of another board member who arranged a cultivation event at a venue in St James’s that people rarely get into. This attracted people from the property sector who our members invited, and resulted in our re-evaluating how we made the most of our asset so that in time, it would be worth an extra £1.5 to 2 million.”

A no-brainer?

When you consider the sizeable returns that development boards can bring, it seems like a no-brainer. But there are pitfalls to watch out for.

“While development boards can help your financial security, and take you to a new income level, get it wrong and the amount of work and time wasted is considerable. It can do your charity's credibility harm and hurt your reputation”, says Matt at Blue Cross.

He believes that although almost all charities would benefit from having a development board, nearly all charities are not ready for them. “Someone hears that it may be a good idea to have one, and then they are set up speedily, and are set to fail.”

So, what ingredients does an organisation need for development board success? “A charity needs a long list of existing major donors before it even begins to think it can have a development board”, says Matt. “If your charity is new to major donor fundraising (i.e. the last 10 years) then you are 99% doomed to fail if you create a development board without the essentials in place.”

He continues: “Although a development board need to only have six to 10 people on it, they need to be the right people, with a strong chair who leads by example and has the authority and personality to ensure the other members deliver. This requires a special ability that most people simply do not have.”

Katie at Ovalhouse Theatre agrees: “Having a development board is beneficial, as long as you have the right staff to control and drive it as a group. Events such as our gala dinner can splinter a group, and so I was very careful to include all members to be able contribute income in some way, whether it was money to buy tickets, people without money to give speeches or bringing prospects.”

Clarity and timing


Emma at MS Society says that before setting up a development board, there needs to be a clear case that they’ll have an impact. “If you just want to do more of the same, it’s probably not the right time to get one. They, like you, want to catalyse dramatic transformations, and there needs to be enough work for them to do. Effective development boards are often full of very busy people who achieve a huge amount. You don’t want to end up with a bored development board – that’s where trouble lies.”

Emma says that flexible, innovative ways of working is key. “We should not just revert to a traditional model of quarterly meetings and huge reams of paperwork. There are highly effective boards that do their best (and most enjoyable) work over monthly breakfast, and other 'virtual' boards who don't ever meet but who are hugely successful.”

For Katie, transparency and open communication are the cornerstones for success. “It is essential to keep everyone abreast of the priorities throughout the campaign or project, to avoid disillusionments or over-use of any members”, she says. “Balance is very difficult to maintain, and honesty is key.”

Supporting the board


Matt says that for a development board to function effectively, it needs excellent stewardship and account management. “A successful development board could well require a committed fundraiser supporting the relationships and doing very little else because of how busy it keeps them. Not all fundraising teams have the capacity to dedicate an entire team member to the work, so this could be another reason to think carefully before proceeding.”

But, he says, “if you have a development board bringing in £300,000 to £500,0000 a year, then we would nearly all agree that is money well spent. If you have the resources to support the board, a major donor base with a history of high-level giving, a strong character to become chair and a vision you can use to inspire high-net-worth individuals to believe and be inspired they can help you achieve fantastic things... then go for it.”

Jenny Daw is Former Editor of The Fundraiser and a Freelance Creative Consultant

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