02 Mar Raising Money is Board Work
2 March 2021
By David Allen, Development for Conservation
Much is made of the “evolution” of nonprofit Boards – from Working Board to Transition Board to Governing Board. The way the process is described – using words like “maturing” and “progressing” – one might assume that the sequence is inevitable, that Governing Board is the pinnacle of nonprofit board achievement, and that Working Boards don’t need to govern (or raise money).
I’d like to offer a different perspective.
Nonprofit work is subsidized by the government. At both the state and federal level, the government accepts less in taxes in return for money being “invested” in nonprofits working in the public’s interests.
The 501 c3 IRS designation that governs this process is essentially a compact between the government and the nonprofit’s Board of Directors to use that money wisely, in the interests of the public good. In other words: Governance.
For land trusts, this compact includes:
- developing an organizational mission and vision that serves the public interest;
- using plans, budgets, and organizational policies to manage activities that are consistent with that mission and vision;
- raising the funds (or otherwise securing the resources) necessary to implement those plans and budgets;
- overseeing the use of those funds and resources in a transparent and responsible manner; and
- ensuring the Board’s long-term sustainability, through self-replication, in perpetuity.
Board members do a lot more than this, of course. They negotiate land deals, blaze trails, lead interpretive hikes, keep the books, manage the auditing process, draft conservation easements, and on, and on. They volunteer. They are conservation heroes! And this evolutionary stage is an important part of the nonprofit’s story.
But these are not Board activities.
These are “staff” activities – even if the people doing the work are Board members and not paid.
Put another way, the distinction between “volunteer” (unpaid) work and “staff” (paid) work is less important than the difference between “Board” work (governance, management, fiscal responsibility, fundraising, and self-replication) and “staff” work (everything else).
Put another way, when a Board member pulls non-native weeds from a preserve, they are not acting in a Board capacity. They are acting a staff capacity (OK volunteer staff). And when their weed-pulling work is completed, their Board work remains undone.
And put another other way, Working Boards ARE Governing Boards.
I see three places where nonprofits run into trouble with this. The first is when the members of a Working Board believe that governing work is less important or even unnecessary. Many of them were asked to serve as Board members, in part, as a way to formally recognize their volunteer contributions. I am not calling any organization out specifically, but here are some of the common themes:
- Strategic Planning is a waste of time and money – we know what we’re doing.
- All the records we’ve ever needed are in my truck. And what I don’t have, is all right here (taps head).
- Term limits? No way. Who would do all the work?
- Accreditation, Schmacreditation.
- Well, no. It’s not really called for specifically in our mission. But it’s related and really important, and that’s how a lot of people know about us.
- That’s right – 16 Board member and 23 committees. I told you we don’t have time for Strategic Planning!
I see this most often related to growth more so than related to evolution. Nonprofits that were formed initially with a relatively small scope that stays small can remain in the “Working Board” stage for years and years. Everyone essentially does everything, and that’s OK. But with growth comes complexity, and with complexity comes specialization, and with specialization comes inattention to the stuff that isn’t as fun to do – like governance.
The second place where Working Boards run into trouble is in the presence of an Executive Director. The Board hires the ED, and presumably manages that person’s job description and annual objectives. The Board members are the bosses. But then they seamlessly transition into other duties and tasks, like negotiating land deals, blazing trails, leading interpretive hikes, keeping the books, managing the auditing process, drafting conservation easements, and on, and on. If they were paid staff instead of volunteers, that work would be organized and managed by the ED. The ED would be the boss.
And when that work is being done by Board members….well you get the picture.
In most ways, the third problem is the most problematic – Board members equate their “Working Board” volunteer activities with giving and fundraising. In other words, the work they are actually doing (staff work) gets them off the hook for fundraising (and in some cases, even giving themselves) because they are a “Working Board.”
- I don’t do fundraising. I’m on the restoration committee.
- I don’t give money, I give time. I probably donate $10,000 in pro-bono legal each year!
- I’d love to be on the Board, but I can’t raise money. I’ll do anything but fundraising.
- We need to recruit Board members who can raise money.
Board members need to govern – develop the organizational mission and vision; use plans, budgets, and policies to manage activities; oversee the responsible use of resources; and self-replicate.
And they need to give themselves and help raise money.
Not because they have “matured” into a Governing Board. But rather because they sit on a nonprofit Board that entered into a compact to use tax-payer-subsidized money wisely, in the interests of the public good. In other words: Governance.
Cheers, and Have a great week!
PS: 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.
Photo by Fred Ménagé courtesy of Pixabay.