The problem with giving as a proxy for board effectiveness

If you’re a board member, you’ve likely heard what I consider one of the lamest rationales out there for your giving. And if you are a nonprofit CEO, I’m betting you’ve passed along this sorry case for board members’ financial support of the organization.

I’m talking about the much ballyhooed link between percentage of board members as donors of record (100 percent is the magic number) and an organization’s ability to win foundation support.

Never mind that grants are but a tiny sliver of the philanthropic pie or that the most nonprofits go years without applying for a grant (and even longer without receiving one). Visions of foundation support dance in board and CEO dreams. And so this assumed truism passes from one generation of board members to the next as a gospel truth of governance. locked_text_11053MAKING A BETTER CASE

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an evangelist for board giving. I preach that board members should be first in line for every appeal, be that the annual fund, a capital campaign, or other special initiative. And I, too, press for 100 percent participation by board members as donors. But not because some foundation officer expects as much.

I believe board members should give because their hearts have been captured by the mission, programs, and possibilities of the causes they’ve agreed to serve. In return, their gifts should be honored as tangible expressions of love and care for the organization. To treat board members’ gifts as pay to play fees in the game of grants demeans their generosity and ignores the myriad ways that a board adds value to an organization.

Worse, a too narrow focus on board giving encourages CEOs and development staff to do crazy things. I’ve heard, for example, of board members being asked to “just give a dollar” so the organization can claim 100 percent participation. In other places, spotty attendance and limited engagement is tolerated as long as a board member gives.


To be sure, such behavior isn’t what foundation officers intend (so I assume), but too often, it’s the result. Change will come only as foundations put the weight of their funding behind true measures of board engagement. Rather than settling for a single, easy indicator, foundation officers need to ask a number of questions about the board’s performance, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Is a committee of the board charged with recruiting and orienting new members and with the continuing education of all members?
  • Does the board have a succession plan for its own leadership?
  • Does the board have a learning agenda that’s linked to the organization’s strategic plan?
  • Do board members regularly evaluate their work as a corporate body and individually?
  • What is the quality of the relationship between the CEO and board chair?
  • What is evidence that the board adds value to the organization?
  • (And finally) Do board members support the organization with gifts that are significant and sacrificial and invite others to join them in giving?

The generosity of folks around the board table does matter, but not because a foundation officer might ask about it. Giving by board members communicates to the community at large that the organization matters, that it’s living up to the promise of its mission, and that it is worthy of gifts and goodwill (including from foundations).

This is the case for support that board members should expect to hear and which CEOs and board leaders should stick to making. As for the time-worn connection between board gifts and foundation grants, it’s time to look for a better proxy for board member engagement.

For more on boards and giving, see:

If I had a rich board, deedle, deedle, dum

Answers to questions about boards and fundraising

10 proposals for upping your board’s value-added quotient


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