Agents of Change

Agents of Change


8 December 2020


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


One of the workshops I have most enjoyed doing for the last several years was called Development Committee Makeover. The point of the workshop was to show, using before and after scripts, how Development Committees could address their work in a much more productive way by limiting their discussion to how board members interact with donors. In other words:

  • talk about specific donors, and
  • talk about what board members do instead of what staff does.


Not website development.

Not annual reports.

Not center pieces for the Gala tables.


The workshop does a good job of describing a future state for the Committee. It does not do a good job of describing how to get there.

Getting there is hard.


As Peter Drucker once famously said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”


How do you get your Development Committee to work like this when doing so would represent a huge change in board culture?


So if you are in need of cultural change on your Board, here are several ideas to offer for possible implementation in 2021.


Start with your Strategic Plan


After the Mission Statement, your Strategic Plan is ground zero for making cultural change. You either have the organization you need to accomplish your strategic objectives or you don’t. And if you don’t, something needs to give.

When board members approve the Strategic Plan, they also approve by implication the enabling programs, budget, and fundraising obligations that come with it. So this is where you start when you need to make changes.


Change needs a Champion


To be successful, the argument for change needs to be borne by a member of the board. Members of staff are not normally able to hold board members accountable. There are exceptions, of course, but they are almost always associated with exceptional staff leaders. Under most circumstances, a member of the board must lead. Staff members will find greater success working through a single board champion, or a small group of board champions, than trying to impose the change themselves. This is extremely frustrating, but it’s true.


Communicate a clear vision


Change needs a well-described destination, a future state that convincingly connects the new activities with desired results. And it cannot be delivered in a one-and-done manner, but rather must be continually restated by the Champion such that at each step of the way, participants see that the activity and the pathway are both necessary and connected.


Create momentum


In most cases WHERE you start is not as important as THAT you start. Consider this post from last year: The January Donor Planning Meeting.

That you are moving is the most important thing. I had the most trouble with this one at first. I was schooled in capital campaigns that you always started with the top of the pyramid. That may be true for campaigns, but it’s not necessarily true for other aspects of major gift fundraising. Instead, I now advocate starting with whomever individual board members are most comfortable.

Sometimes this is called “little wins.” When Board members begin to see that their relationships with donors can deepen and watch as donors become more and more engaged, they will begin to feel ownership of the process themselves. And coming together and swapping stories about their experience becomes more and more fun.


Support new responsibilities with new systems


The systems you have in place right now either were created or evolved to support the current status quo. If you want to change the status quo, you will need to change the systems that support it. Some examples include:

  • Notes from the meetings read more as recordings of individual commitments than as “minutes” (what will be done and by whom between now and next meeting?),
  • Regular communications about major gifts that are made to the organization (do board members know the donors?),
  • Times and places for board members and donors to meet each other (post pandemic!),
  • Knowing beforehand WHO is coming to a particular event, and arranging for them to be introduced to organizational leaders, and
  • Regularly screening membership lists for major gift potential.


Planning to get your Development Committee to be more productive leading and managing board members building relationships with donors is a lofty goal and will result in many big “wins” for your organization. But you won’t get there overnight. Get started in 2021, build the program in 2022, and plan to hit a new stride in 2023.


Happy Holidays!




Photo by Nature’s Beauty courtesy of


PS: I’m told that this year, more people are expected to stay awake for midnight on New Year’s Eve. Not so much to usher in 2021, but rather to make sure that 2020 actually leaves!


PPS: Much of this week’s post was originally written in 2016.


PPS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.



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  • David LIllard
    Posted at 09:19h, 08 December

    I am really taking to heart your insight about “supporting new responsibilities with new systems.” I confess that sometimes staff can be reluctant to changing systems. We staff can sometimes bristle that our brilliant systems are not necessarily supportive of change — although still brilliant! 🙂

  • reneecarey
    Posted at 06:48h, 08 December

    We are wrapping up a strategic plan update now (hopefully at the December board meeting) and I am going to forward this to the new chair of the Fund Development Committee (long story on that name).

    • David Allen
      Posted at 09:35h, 08 December

      Great! Now take the next step: Imagine successfully completing all the work within the established time frame. How much will that have cost? How much for one-time expenses like land or equipment purchase, or endowment? And how much will be needed every year beginning in the final year of the plan. These are NET figures. (In other words, if I had that much in my pocket and gave it to you, you would be able to accomplish everything in the Plan.) Now imagine raising that much as a NET. How much money will you need to spend for fundraising to NET the first amount? The NET figure needed for program plus the fundraising costs become the Fund Development Goal for the organization.
      Now you’re cookin’!