What do you mean we have to give money????
It doesn't matter whether I'm training an individual board, facilitating a workshop at a conference, or leading the governance unit in one of my online classes. When I'm talking about the roles of nonprofit boards, no concept is more troubling than the notion of including a financial contribution
requirement in the member job description. The inevitable responses range from confusion to queasiness to outrage. How can we possibly ask board members to pull out the checkbook or credit card once a year, appalled audience members ask? Isn't their gift of time enough?
For many foundations and individual major donors, the answer to that is "No." Moreover, how they respond to your request for funds often depends upon how you respond to a question they pose to you: What percentage of your board made a financial contribution to your organization in the last year? The rationale is simple: If your own leaders aren't committed enough to make a financial investment in your mission, why should we?
Obviously, your board is free to enact any policy that it wants to adopt. That includes the right to have no policy mandating financial contributions. But with that freedom should come the knowledge that such a choice may have consequences. Real, financial consequences.
If your nonprofit doesn't apply for grant funding (especially from private foundations) or engage in major gift fundraising, this may be a non-issue. However, if those are part of your fundraising mix, I can pretty much guarantee that you will eventually encounter this phenomenon. If your response to the percentage question isn't "100 percent," don't be surprised when your request is moved down the priority list or denied completely.
My counsel to boards is to adopt (and enforce) a board giving policy that calls for annual contributions by each member at a level that is personally meaningful. "Meaningful" to you may be $1,000. "Meaningful" to me may be $10. "Meaningful" to our fellow board member may be $100. I've never heard of a gift request or grant proposal being disqualified because of the amounts individual members gave. What donors and foundations want to know is that every member gave. It's a matter of commitment.
A "personally meaningful" giving policy accommodates concerns I hear vocalized by smaller nonprofits, especially by human services boards that recruit current or former clients or that place a premium on broad community representation (including low-income members). "Personally meaningful" is a pretty broad definition. (Even a penny qualifies, strictly speaking.) There is no reason to embarrass anyone. Only the CEO, the bookkeeper and I need to know how much I gave this year. My board peers only require confirmation that I have fulfilled my annual contribution commitment.
What is behind this reluctance to expect this of our board members? I've come to the conclusion that it's connected to the "any live body will do" trap that too often drives board recruitment and retention efforts. We feel so lucky that we were able to sweet-talk them into serving (probably with promises that "It won't take that much time...") that we don't want to overdo it. Asking them to give money may just push them over the edge, we fear.
If that one step is too much, we have a problem - probably with our entire conception of the board's purpose. We set boards up for failure, and ourselves up for frustration, when we minimize the significant commitments that come with governance. For many boards, part of that commitment is a financial one. We need to own and enforce that.
NOTE: This post emerged from a conversation with friend and fellow nonprofit junkie Pamela Grow. Pam addressed the topic in this important post: At Last! 100% Board Giving! The statistic she cites, that 55 percent of respondents to her 2012 Small Shop Fundraising Survey lack full participation by their board members, sparked this collective reflection.