The Fundraiser - Practical advice and insight for the charity sector

Posted in Special Focus Major Donor & Philanthropy Training & Development, Charity Management

How to engage your board in major giving

Tobin Aldrich, The Fundratios study

Major giving in the UK is still falling far short of US levels. Tobin Aldrich looks at why this is the case and how UK charities, through changing their approach to trustee board engagement, can rectify this


For a very long time, it seems, we have been waiting for major giving in the UK to grow to the levels of the US. Much ink has been spilt on the subject by sector commentators. A series of reviews, think tanks and roundtables have discussed the subject in all its permutations. And there has been enormous investment by UK charities in developing major gift programmes Ė to the extent that all but a very few of the larger fundraising charities have whole teams focused on securing big gifts from individuals.


The results of all this activity have been, well, underwhelming. As with all areas of fundraising, we donít have any really definitive figures, but the data we do have shows that major gifts from individuals are typically a small proportion of the income of most charities. The Fundratios study over many years showed that major giving was between 2% and 3% of the fundraising income of major charities.


A conservative estimate would suggest there are a few hundred major donor fundraisers in the UK today. Thatís a lot of fundraisers chasing really not very many large gifts. In fact one wonders if there might not be more major gift fundraisers than actual major gifts in the UK today.


So whatís going wrong?


There are lots of potential reasons why major giving in the UK has not developed (proportionately) to US levels. Different histories have driven very different cultures regarding philanthropy, as with many things. Giving is more expected in the US, and more public when it occurs.


One of the ways in which the US and UK philanthropic cultures are different is the role of the board in fundraising. On most UK charity boards, trustees see their remit as governance, not fundraising. Whereas to join a non-profit board in the US is, usually, to expect to be asked to support the organisation financially as well as with time.


Any US fundraiser will tell you that board engagement is crucial for the success of a major giving programme. For an organisation to be successful in securing the biggest gifts it needs, alongside a CEO engaged in fundraising supported by skilled development staff, a board that will use their personal and financial capital to support the programme.


The first question potential major donors will often ask when approached about an appeal is, ďhave the board given?Ē. Itís a reasonable question. If the appeal isnít something the charityís own board feels is important enough to support with their own money, why should I support it with mine? Some large foundations only give to appeals where the charityís whole board have given.


An engaged board, comprising individuals who are willing to use their time and contacts to actively support fundraising, makes a massive difference to the success of major gift campaigns. For many UK fundraisers, having such a board might seem an impossible dream.


So how do our US colleagues manage to get boards onside?


First and most important is that fundraising needs to become a whole organisation priority. The CEO is crucial for this. They must show, by deeds as well as words, that this is an area they are giving priority to, and that they will actively work to bring the board with them. Some CEOs like to have fairly passive boards, allowing them greater autonomy. But to support fundraising, an engaged board is essential.


The whole board need to accept and agree that fundraising is a priority and that they have a responsibility, personally, to support it. The CEO, the board chair and the senior staff all have key roles in helping the board understand this and make this commitment. This will involve educating the board about fundraising, how important it is and how it really works.


As with soliciting gifts themselves, peer speaking to peer is very useful in helping get these messages through to boards. Get someone who has chaired a major fundraising appeal to talk to the board about how it worked and what it entailed. The head of fundraising shouldnít tell the board how major giving works; get a major donor to do it.


For the board members themselves, the key is setting expectations at the outset.


They have to be told, when they are being recruited for the board, that they will expected to take personal responsibility for fundraising. Willingness and ability to help in this way must be a key criteria of board membership. There needs to be a discussion about what they can do for fundraising at the point they are being considered for a trusteeship.


The development team then needs to work with each board member individually to help them contribute in the best way. Not every or even most board members will be personally wealthy, but everyone will have contacts and networks that will have potential.


The fundraisers need to treat board members as they would major donor prospects. This means understanding their background and motivations, and working on engaging them properly before asking them to approach others. To be a credible advocate, a trustee needs to fully buy into what they are promoting. This is why board giving is so critical Ė and Iím not talking about the amount of money given, but the demonstration of commitment it provides.


The development staff then need to set up success by making it easy to get involved.


Run some non-ask events, and make it easy for trustees to invite their friends. Give them training on how to be effective ambassadors, and provide them with content they can share in the form of compelling stories about the difference the charity is making. Provide proper supporting materials too: give board members business cards and brochures they can show people.


The board as a whole needs to have visibility of what each is doing to support fundraising. They need to see the impact that this support is having. Success stories need to be shared and celebrated. It is very important that this is a collective effort.


Thereís no real mystery to engaging boards in fundraising.


If they are shown how important it is, and what their role needs to be to ensure success, trustees who are really committed to the success of the charity will do whatís needed.


Itís the job of CEOS and fundraising staff to make sure these conversations happen early on, and that expectations are set accordingly.


While US and British cultures of philanthropy are distinct, thereís no reason to think that the same principles of effective engagement will not work this side of the Atlantic. And approaches are changing here; we are seeing more and more organisations beginning to engage their boards. It will be a long journey but the future of major philanthropy in this country may depend on it being undertaken.


Tobin Aldrich is an international consultant in fundraising and marketing strategies for non-profits. Tobin has over two decadesí experience in marketing in over two dozen countries across the globe. He can be reached at

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