Avoiding the topic is the wrong approach. Here’s how to set expectations and make the conversation less stressful.

Make the Most of an Uncomfortable Conversation

If you are a parent, it is stressful to have “the talk” with your children. At best, it is an awkward conversation about an uncomfortable subject. You both are counting the minutes until it is over.

If you are a nonprofit CEO, executive director or board president, it is equally stressful to have “the talk” with a board member. In this case, the subject of the conversation is their responsibility to fundraise on behalf of the organization. Much like the idea of discussing sex with your children, discussing a give/get with a board member can be extremely uncomfortable. But does it need to be?  

Set Expectations Ahead of Time

Early on in my days leading a nonprofit organization, I avoided this conversation at all cost and hoped board members would “do the right thing” and make an annual gift. But I came to realize that this was not the right approach. My mistake, however, had already been made. Most of the members of our board had joined without a clear understanding of this topic. I felt that creating an obligation around a give/get at this point was changing the rules in the middle of the game. Not creating a clear understanding before they joined the board was my fault, not theirs.

So what is the answer to the question “when is the right time to have the fundraising talk with a board member?” It is before they join the organization. Most prospective board members will not find this conversation awkward. On the contrary, they will likely find this conversation comforting.  Prospective board members want clarity around what is expected of them. They want to be successful and most understand that generating cash is a fundamental part of the deal.

Have a Discussion About Reaching Goals 

In this conversation, you can discuss how the organization supports its board members in the fundraising process, how the organization will honor its relationship with its contacts and how their fundraising success will directly tie to the organization achieving its desired impact. This conversation is a perfect opportunity to describe the myriad ways various board members reach their fundraising goals and get some initial sense for how they might go about this if they end up joining the organization.

So how did we address increasing transparency around fundraising and the way we recommend our clients deal with this? By creating a document that outlines board member roles and responsibilities and sharing it with prospective board members early in the vetting process. Included in this document should be a clear expectation around fundraising. And don’t assume everyone will read what is sent to them. You should bring their attention to this element of board service and have them talk about their experience and their comfort around fundraising. 

Even if they decide that your organization’s resource development responsibility precludes them from joining your nonprofit, you will have done both the prospective board member and the organization a huge favor by “having the fundraising talk” before they make a commitment they cannot keep.  

David Rhode is the founder of Dot Dot Org, a nonprofit consulting firm.

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