Monday, May 19, 2008

Nonprofit Boards and Raising Money

"Our findings clearly reveal disturbing levels of CEO dissatisfaction with board performance. ...[F]undraising is a major area of concern, but it extends well beyond that into other roles."

Francie Ostrower, Boards of Midsize Nonprofits: Their Challenges and Needs, May 2008.

This report is part of the Urban Institute's National Survey of Nonprofit Governance and looks more closely at the subset of data about nonprofits with budgets between $500,000 and $5 million. This is the nonprofit world I toiled in for many years and reflect upon in Nonprofit Leadership.

Did I really ever get much help with fundraising? Not much. Some contacts and suggestions, a few meetings, and some small fundraisers. But I certaintly couldn't have raised much money without a functioning board.

Was I dissatisfied as an ED with this lack of fundraising assistance from the board? Sure. Was it my top complaint or concern? Probably not. For me, the major role of the board was policy and oversight. And doing community development required good dose of neighborhood accountability. I'm not sure my boards always understood the implications of their decisions, or our underlying business models or lack thereof, but the acts of making decisions and being transparent provided me with the gift of clarity and back-up, at least for a little while.

In the end, after I left both organizations, the boards made some bad decisions about new executive staff and the organizations got lost for a while, maybe foreover in some people's minds. I know better now how key these transitions are and that boards need help, but I have to admit that both experiences made me question basic board capacity and understanding. Or, maybe I didn't provide the right training? Another ED responsibility. Ugh!

Dissatisfaction grows in part from how much time EDs have to spend developing boards -- cultivating new members, board prep and attendance management, pre-meetings with executive board members, infighting, maintaining board/staff roles, and so on. It's a lot of work to make governance work while you also have the responsibility of running the show day to day. Of course, some celebrity nonprofits of this size recruit great boards with money, contacts, and free time. Not all of us were so lucky, even though some great people served on our boards.

All this makes me wonder whether collectively we are getting what we need from nonprofit boards of this size, and especially the smaller ones? Are these the right structures? Are these the right expectations? Maybe governance -- and specific roles like fundraising -- require some rethinking.

1 comment:

Josh said...

Some people seem to enjoy it, but for me, fundraising, especially by courting major donors, is one of the least interesting aspects of working for social change.

I recognize of course that it is completely necessary, and it allows organizations to do their work. I wonder though how much of the fundraising responsibilities should fall on the shoulders of board members, and how much should be taken care of by full time staff.