Building Relationships

Some years ago, when I taught the MBA fundraising course at the Cambridge Judge Business School, I told my students that building a relationship with a potential donor follows the same basic rules as any other relationship. I used to say, ‘This isn’t about a summer romance. This is about finding your life partner’. There is an initial period where you explore whether your missions are aligned, whether you feel appreciated, have a two-way communication, and a genuine and mutually beneficial and respectful relationship. You can’t rush relationships – they take time. Start now in building your group of friends and supporters.

Practical Planning for Board Recruitment

Identifying the early candidates for a Development Board is a tricky business. One brilliant approach I have seen is to form a ‘Planning Committee’, a group of critical friends who grow with you and will provide early thinking on you case for support, your campaign or fundraising goal, and/or objectives. A group of 10-20 is ideal. Make the Terms of Reference or expectations for Committee membership clear and practical: for example, 3-4 meetings in 12/18 months, to review key documents for fundraising purposes, and test your fundraising strategy. During one of my experiences, the recommendations in the last meeting included setting up a proper Development Board! You can debate minimum gift amounts required for board membership and other Terms of Reference for the Board. As an organization, you can assess members for suitability on a Development Board, and frankly, they can do the same. A natural group often pre-selects themselves.

Any joiners do need a wide network, capacity and inclination to give. It is critical that you identify people who ‘get’ fundraising or are willing to learn. Pickings can be slim but persevere and stick to your standards.

Preparing for conversations

Early on in my career, an old hand ‘Joe’ used to say you get a lot of scar tissue in this game. In my experience he is correct, but learning lessons from others, and there are plenty, marks you out as smarter and more likely to achieve success at your organisation. A few lessons which I’ve gathered in forming effective Development Boards:

  1. Are potential Development Board members ready to be asked to help?
  2. Plan what the ask will be. What are you actually going to say?
    • Be clear on the Terms of Reference
    • Be explicit. When recruiting Development Board members, be explicit. For years, the heads of non-profit organisations have invited people to join boards or committees without explicitly asking them to personally give and recruit potential donors. This never ends well.
    • Put the Terms of Reference in writing setting out the job description for the role. Equally, it is sensible to be specific about the support you will provide.
  3. Be prepared for both a yes or a no. Decide ahead of time how to handle the myriad of possible outcomes.
  4. Don’t send your CEO or VC into a situation where you haven’t prepared the way.

First a note: Your institutional culture will benefit from the practice that the CEO or VC always takes an experienced development professional into major donor meetings. You can take notes, listen, prompt, and will be in charge of following up, including drafting letters for him or her post-visit, organising any ensuing meetings or sending any requested information. You will have prepared briefing notes and made sure your leader is ready before the meeting.

If you aren’t quite sure whether someone is ready to be asked to join the Development Board, a professional staff member who has attended meetings can make a preparatory or soft ask. ‘I know the VC/CEO is hoping that you might be persuaded to join our Development Board. Is that something you would like to discuss?  Can I arrange a meeting?’ My VC used to call this ‘keeping her currency high’. He/she can’t be everywhere with everyone and so creating another powerful relationship – someone who can follow up – is tactically powerful.

What do I say?  

If you are fairly certain of a yes, then you and your VC or CEO will say something like: ‘We are putting together a Development Board and wonder if that is something that you would consider?’ I remember my VC saying this quickly followed by, ‘and are asking that all of those who do join make a gift at the XX level, help us host events, make introductions and act as ambassadors into your networks. How would you feel about joining us? Is this a good time?’ Ask with pride and enthusiasm.

You may feel you want to negotiate those steps more slowly, and that is okay too. But any potential Development Board member must be willing to make a gift. You can’t sit on a Development Board without giving and you can’t ask if you haven’t given yourself. 

What if you get a ‘no’ or a ‘not now’ or even a big promise? 

If you ask and get a ‘no’ or a ‘not now’, that’s fine. Let them explain why and don’t cut them off and rush out. Listen to the objection. Is it a question of timing? This door may not be open now but it may be later. Ask if you can keep this person in touch with what you are doing and then don’t forget to do so. Thank them for their time and interest, be gracious.

Makes big promises, offers no commitment

How about someone who says, ‘Yes, I’d love to, but I will make a big gift in a couple of years?’

‘We are delighted that you see us as an important partner. At XX Organisation/University, only those who give at the XX level are invited to become development board members. As soon as the gift level reaches the level required for Development Board membership, we look forward to inviting you to join’.

In my experience of working directly or indirectly with well over 100 benefactors giving at the 7-figure level, making promises and offering no commitment ends in big disappointment.

Commitment in any kind of relationship looks and has a concrete feel.

The members of any Development Board need to make a gift and give it at the start of whatever campaign or appeal he/she is assisting with. And pledging forward does not count. I remember one Development Board member pledging a multi-million-pound gift over five years. We let him join and three years in, that person still hadn’t made the gift but had gone to all the parties, met all the VIPs, and got all the glory for being on the Development Board. Just say no. 

A different outcome: I won’t give but I will get

Another potential outcome is the individual whom you have approached to join your board, ‘Yes, I will join but I won’t give. I will get’.

You can accept the offer of help to connect you with major donors.  There are some people who do not give significantly, though we may think they have the resources, but they will introduce others to you. Work with them separately – don’t put them on a Board. I’ve worked with several of these wonderful individuals who have introduced us to significant donors and whose networks and advice made some truly remarkable projects possible.

The bottom line for us is to advise our CEO/VC to recruit only Development Board members who will give and get. Don’t accept those unwilling to do so. You will look back and see wasted time for everyone. And once you have those transformational people on board, steward them VERY well. They must be treated with respect and great care – just like any other committed relationship.

Change the culture, change the outcome

Where do you start?

While philanthropy in the US is deeply embedded in the cultural life of its citizens, in the UK we need to create an expectation and a sense of excitement that giving is a prerequisite for Development Board membership. I’ve seen Development Directors forced to make too many exceptions resulting in a Development Board that is not effective.

In response to my earlier blog ‘On Board’, one Cambridge academic reminded me that in the early days of one departmental campaign, not one external ‘Development Board’ member gave or helped ask. In response, the Head of Department lined up his top academics who took on the role, networked and made the asks. Their success was certainly one of the most efficient tipping points for culture change. Suddenly, the entire community saw the fundraising world in a new light: major donors were willing to partner with the University to support the future of this particular academic subject area and its students. Asking for financial support to do this was no longer beneath the dignity of eminent academics. This particular eminent academic took pride in the successful fundraising campaign and his role in it. As a result, the Development office supported, wrote proposals, stewarded and gained the confidence of the academic and the community.

We as professionals can catalyse a culture change. Similarly, Development Board members through their intellectual and financial engagement can impact the shape of the UK’s civil society and improve lives and planetary health in so doing. What could be more dignified than saying, ‘I am working to right this inequity?’ Surely this is at the heart of most faiths or moral codes.

No one has to adopt the American style fundraising whole-cloth, just its record of success.