Get governance or get off

I feel the pain of nonprofit CEOs and development staff who rail about board members’ reluctance to step up to the fundraising challenge.

I’ve served on the development staffs of three Christian colleges, including a short stint as a VP for Advancement. For the past 15 years, I’ve provided development counsel to faith-based nonprofits. I’ve authored dozens of articles about the board and fundraising and presented hundreds of workshops on the topic. And, as the member of one nonprofit board after another, I’ve sat through many fundraising pep talks delivered by other consultants.

In short, I’ve experienced this subject from every angle, first-hand. I’m familiar with every argument, every plea.

begging_to_boss_400_clr_6532I also know that for all the training, the talk, and the tears (on the part of frustrated staff), the majority of nonprofits aren’t doing any better today than 10 years ago. In fact, most are doing worse. Which explains my growing frustration with the way agency staff and my colleagues in the consulting community hip-hop over the REAL work of the board – governance – and go straight to fundraising.


I’m heartened when some of my kind give a nod to other items on a board member’s job description. And I’m thrilled by those who name excellence in governance as the highest aim of boards and board members. But too many wise ones boil their advice to board members down to four short words: “Get or get off.”

Case in point, a blogger with the Philanthropy of Chronicle’s online daily edition. She writes:

Board membership and fundraising go hand in hand, but all too often, trustees don’t think that way. . . Ultimately, you have to offer board members choices, and you have to respect their decisions. Fundraising can be scary for the uninitiated. Here are some ways to make it less intimidating:

  • Plan to spend a considerable amount of board time training your trustees if this is new to them.
  • Clearly define fundraising as a process rather than an event. It’s all about building relationships.
  • Offer trustees a menu of opportunities for how to get involved. Some are not comfortable making an ask but are more than happy to help with anything from making stewardship calls to setting up meetings with colleagues to having an “at-home” to introduce your mission to friends and family.
  • If none of the above work, find a graceful way for the trustee to leave the board but stay involved in another position, such as committee member or volunteer.

Turning the board into a fundraising machine will be a long process but well worth it. (Emphasis mine)


Maybe. But as I’ve written here, a board that’s a smooth-functioning governance machine is worth even more. Sadly, there’s nary a mention in the bullet points above of the foundational purpose for which boards were created — to govern.

The board’s chief (some would say, sole) responsibility is to create the structures, policies, and environment in which the organization (including the fundraising program) can flourish. In other words, it’s the job of the board to advance the organization through governance. To ask a board member who excels in other areas of governance work to exit the board because he or she doesn’t feel comfortable stumping for money would be a tremendous disservice to the person and the organization.

Board members contribute to mission advancement in many ways. Each comes to his or her board assignment with a unique combination of personal, professional, and spiritual giftedness. In recruiting a well-rounded board, it’s appropriate to make comfort/expertise with fundraising a criteria, but not the determinant in board member selection.

When seeking long-term organizational vitality, I counsel CEOs and board chairs to put the emphasis on good governance. If a board member doesn’t want to go there – if he or she doesn’t want to get what it means to do good board work – then I’m willing to say “get off.”

Recruiting and nurturing a strong board — a board that defines its best gift as good governance — is a slow process. But it’s well worth the effort. I guarantee.


  1. Lee Solomon says:


    Is it wiser to identify and mentor current board members who are willing to try the above and not expect all will engage? We have a couple who are willing and are doing some of the above bullet points. One is even hosting an event inviting friends, congregants and clients from his business to attend. From a development officer perspective (18 yrs) I am willing to have a few vs. none.

    • As you say, Lee, a few board members who are good at and enjoy being part of the fundraising function is definitely better than none. In fact, it’s better than that. It’s great — and realistic. A strong, well-rounded board includes members with a range of expertise, interests, networks, and spiritual gifts. It’s up to the board chair, president, and senior staff to make the most of all the assets present within the boardroom. I’ll be the first to dance for joy when a board member or two (three or four) shows interest in and an aptitude for development work, but I’m sad when CEOs, fundraising staff, or consultants make fundraising the be-all of board work. It’s good news that you have a couple of development devotees on your board. Enjoy. But also enjoy the rest of the board. They bring gifts, too.

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