Fundraising is a team sport. The competition for donor dollars is fierce, and success depends on well-coached players — CEOs, board members, and development officers — working in tandem and executing their assigned roles with precision. The problem, recent research indicates, is that too many players lack training, and they don’t understand their positions. Development officers often feel like they are the only players on the field. Meanwhile, some board members act like quarterbacks, while others are shaking pompoms on the sidelines — or they fail to suit up at all. As a result, the team may fail to score.


In Trust recently talked to Penelope Burk, president of Cygnus Applied Research Inc., a Chicago-based international consulting firm that recently surveyed 4,500 nonprofit board members on the topic of fundraising. First the good news: An overwhelming majority of board members feel a responsibility for the fundraising success of their organization, even when they serve not-for-profits that employ professional fundraising staff. On the negative side: Of 12 tasks that contribute to a successful fundraising program, board members claim responsibility for only four, and two of those four rightly belong to the organization’s chief executive officer. 


Your research indicates that board members have certain assets that qualify them for specific fundraising tasks. What asset tops the list?


Number one, by a country mile, is influence. Because they are volunteers, board members have influence that professional fundraisers cannot have. 


Donors feel genuine respect for people who volunteer their time, particularly people such as board members who are at the top of the volunteer pyramid and make serious decisions that affect the welfare of an organization. Donors are likely to take a volunteer’s call whereas they might decline a call from a staff member whom they know is paid. A donor will kindly wait while a volunteer fumbles through an “ask” but might not be as patient with a professional. 


We know that the most difficult part of securing a major gift is simply getting an appointment with a prospective donor. That’s why an organization needs both staff and volunteer fundraisers who understand their roles and work in tandem to maximize their abilities. The professional fund-raiser’s role is to identify and research prospects, many of whom were suggested by board members. Then it’s the volunteer who makes the initial phone call and often is invited into the donor’s office or living room. The CEO or development director can take it from there and complete the “ask.” 


In addition to making initial phone calls, what other fundraising tasks do board members recognize as their responsibility?


They understand the importance of attending fundraising and donor recognition events to meet and socialize with donors. 


Again, it comes down to influence. The entire fundraising team needs to be present at these events, but donors typically remember the volunteer leaders who greeted them at the door with a smile and a handshake and brought them into conversations with other people in the room. A close interaction with four or five donors also benefits the volunteers because now they have a connection with those donors and will find it easier to pick up the phone in the future and make door-opening phone calls that lead to appointments. 


According to your study, what fundraising tasks do board members believe are their own responsibility but that should actually be assigned to other members of the team?


Our research showed board members feel responsible for developing their organization’s fundraising plan and then evaluating fundraising performance against budget expectations. But these really are the responsibility of the chief executive officer, because they require a diversified knowledge of fundraising and an understanding of how programs interact to create a plan. 


Boards sometimes get down in the weeds offering opinions and suggesting fundraising programs and events without the requisite knowledge of what it takes to move a donor from entry-level to high-level giving. 


I suggest two questions that boards should ask to determine if their organization’s fundraising is moving in the right direction or if they need to step in. First, what is our overall donor retention rate? Second, what is the average gift value? If those numbers have improved over the previous year, board members can be confident that fundraising is improving.


Besides making initial contacts and attending special events, what other fundraising tasks do board members perform very well?


We can cluster two tasks under the heading of “expressing thanks to donors.” These expressions can be personal handwritten thank-you notes or thank-you phone calls. Last year we surveyed donors who had received thank-you calls and we asked them if they remembered who made the calls. The options were board members, CEOs, professional fundraisers, and — in an academic setting — students. 


The leadership volunteers and CEOs came out on top. Donors considered thank-you calls to be very meaningful gestures and some credited the calls with motivating them to give again and to give more generously.


We’ve talked about board members securing first appointments with donors and following up with thank-you calls for gifts that result. What about the activity in the middle — the “ask”? Is that better left to the CEO or development officer?


Not necessarily. Sometimes a board of 20 people might have two or three or even five members who are very good at being part of the team that makes major gift asks. These are people we recruit for our capital campaign cabinets because they have the confidence and willingness that the job requires. But to expect everyone on the board to solicit large contributions would be unrealistic. That said, there are many other ways board members can assist the team that does the asking, although few board members we surveyed were familiar or experienced with these critical support functions. 


What other ways can board members help the fundraising team? 


The single most important responsibility of the board is determining the case for fundraising. In other words, the governing board sets the strategic objectives for the charitable organization and identifies specific programs, services, or initiatives that donors can support with their gifts. The fundraiser’s marching orders are to take the objectives and build a saleable, marketable case that they then take to donors. The fact that leadership volunteers did not claim that task as their responsibility was disconcerting.


Did your research uncover any information that surprised you?


Yes, certain findings did surprise me. For example, only 39 percent of board members said they received any kind of fundraising training, and only 18 percent said that their boards evaluate their own performance in fundraising. 


We asked board members if they felt their boards did an effective job at fundraising. Most respondents said no, they didn’t. We then asked why they rated themselves so poorly and what would turn the situation around. The majority of board members said they needed training and were specific about the form that training should take. 


Board members made it clear that they didn’t want fundraising training to take place on a retreat, and they didn’t want to give up a weekend. Instead, they wanted the training to be in modules, doled out in small units that they could bite off and chew easily. That makes perfect sense because time is everyone’s most precious commodity, and it’s a big issue for volunteers. 


Besides offering training, how might a board improve its fundraising performance?


Prospective board members need to know about the board’s fundraising responsibilities before they agree to serve. 


Unfortunately, when we asked board members if they were told about the fundraising expectations when they were recruited, almost nobody responded affirmatively. As a matter of fact, it was not uncommon for survey respondents to tell us that fundraising expectations were minimized or not referenced at all during the nominations process; only after they joined the board did members begin to realize that they would be expected to raise money.  


This approach is unfair to board members and often counterproductive. Feeling misled and lacking in confidence, many board members quietly distance themselves from fundraising responsibilities, leaving paid staff to pick up the slack.


Is there a way that board members can evaluate their fundraising performance and actually see how much they are contributing to their organization’s success?


Yes. We’ve designed a rating system that illustrates practical and productive contributions to fundraising that board members can make, while it simultaneously measures performance. Every task is assigned a point value. Board members earn points as they participate in fundraising — points which add up over the year — providing individual members, and the board as a whole, with a quantifiable measure of performance.


The rating system provides leadership volunteers with a lot of leeway to pick and choose tasks they enjoy and do well. All the tasks are bottom-line oriented because they either influence new donors to come in the door or motivate current donors to give again, give more generously, and give more often.

To learn more

A previous interview with Penelope Burk was published in the summer 2013 issue of In Trust. It is available at


Penelope Burk’s latest book, Donor-Centered Leadership, includes more information on boards and fundraising. Burk blogs at and is on Twitter at @PenelopeBurk. For more information about Cygnus Applied Research, visit

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