Eight Systems that Suppress Giving

Eight Systems that Suppress Giving

21 May 2024


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


“The systems you have in place right now either were created or evolved on their own to support the current status quo. If you want to change the status quo, you need to change the systems that support it – first.”


I’ve been saying those sentences for so long, that they just roll off my tongue now. We want our Board members to play a larger role in raising money. So we need to look at the systems we have in place that support Board members NOT raising money – and change them – first. We want to encourage our donors to give more. So we need to look at the systems we have in place that support donors NOT giving more – and change them – first. We want to raise more money. So we need to look at the systems we have in place that support NOT raising more money – and change them – first.

I wrote a response last week to Richard Perry’s Five Strategies That Suppress Giving, essentially arguing in each case that the strategy itself wasn’t the problem as much as what was going on around the strategy. (See Strategies That Suppress Giving – A Response.)

I did not intend to assert that we aren’t doing things that suppress giving. We are. But I tend to characterize them as “systems” instead of “strategies.” Mostly because I don’t believe they are actions intentionally employed to achieve specific results. I believe they are more practices and behaviors we have inherited or simply adopted.


Here are eight systems and “practices” that I believe get in the way of raising more money.


Recruiting Board members who are not themselves donors – Board members who were not themselves donors first often don’t understand the importance, urgency, or scale of the land trust’s funding needs – at least not to the point of being inspired to give. They may believe they were asked to serve on the Board for other reasons. Or that they themselves aren’t capable of making a difference on the scale that the organization needs.

This becomes self-fulfilling. When Board members aren’t part of the solution, they become part of the problem. Donors are inspired by Board members who give significantly themselves at whatever scale is appropriate for them. In a sense, donors take their cues from what Board members do either way – positively or negatively.


Explicit responsibilities for Board members that don’t include fundraising – Does your organization have a Board Member Job Description? Does it say anything about Board engagement in fundraising or in building relationships with members and donors? It’s hard to hold someone accountable for something they were not clearly assigned to do.

But just having a Job Description isn’t really enough. Prospective Board members should be briefed on expectations BEFORE they agree to serve. Use the Job Description, and talk about everyone being “in.” When someone balks at the fundraising responsibility, tell them that that no one likes it, but that it’s part of the job. Tell them that they will not be put in positions where they can’t succeed, and that they will have significant training and practice opportunities. Tell them that it’s not about “selling.” It’s about getting to know people who believe what they believe. Everyone should be able to do that.


Lack of Board/donor interaction training, mentorship, or practice – How do we prepare Board members for effectively representing their land trusts back into their communities? How will they know what to say? By not providing any level of overt support, the land trust communicates that Board level work with donors is neither important nor even expected. No one arrives at the Board table with all the tools they need to be effective as organizational ambassadors and advocates. They need to be informed, trained, and inspired to do the work.

Ideally, this is a role a Donor Relations Committee should play. Every Board meeting could include some little fundraising piece – some could be in the form of a briefing about something related to fundraising – planned giving perhaps, or gifts of real estate. Others could be more experiential, such as tips for starting up a tabletop conversation with strangers, or practice explaining conservation easements, or time devoted to making thank you phone calls. Or perhaps you could bring in someone from outside the organization to talk about their land trust’s experience or to provide more professional fundraising training.


Fundraising planning that focuses on broad-scale activities, instead of individual donors or even donor groups or segments – One-size-fits-all strategies suppress giving, because money doesn’t come from generic letters, emails, and events. It comes from people. And the better you know people as individuals – and treat them as individuals – the more money you will be able to raise. We won’t ever have the bandwidth to treat every single donor individually. But deploying our staff and volunteer resources in that direction will help.

Board level interaction with donors is the highest and best use of Board member time and energy. Not planning it, and not supporting the implementation of those plans, sends the message that it’s not important.


Lack of and resistance to term limits – The important relationship is between the donor and the organization. It is important that the “face” of the organization remain consistent up to a point, but donors also need to understand that transitions are an important dimension of perpetuity. (Some Board members need help understanding this as well.) The world changes faster than we do, and even with the best of intentions, Board members having served for more than ten years are still using their own experience as a baseline. It’s one of the reasons that many are still using $25 as the lowest level of annual membership.

When the Board faces never change, the organization runs the risk of becoming seen as “old.” When GenX and Millennials look at organizational leadership, do they see people who look like them?


Treating membership levels as transactional fees and including Life Membership at all – Membership should be considered a gift – freely given and gratefully accepted at whatever level is comfortable for the giver. And there shouldn’t be any difference between membership and donations. Someone giving $1,000 should be a member, regardless of whether they checked the box or not.

Life memberships are their own separate bear. Some people join as life members so that they never have to be solicited or give again. Some join simply because it was the highest-level box available when they decided to give. In both cases, life memberships suppress giving. Perhaps the problem is that it’s undervalued. Perhaps it should be $1,000,000 instead of $1,000. But even then, I would counsel against it.


Organizational focus on “how many” more often than on “who” – An organizational event should be evaluated at least as much on “who” was there as on “how many.” A small event with several key donors/influencers might be as valuable or even more so than a large event which did not attract major gift prospects, people of color, or broader community representation.


Overdependence on a single person doing the fundraising – When all or most of the fundraising is done by a single person, and everyone else more or less becomes observers, the land trust is vulnerable when that person leaves.



If you’re going to change the status quo, you will need to challenge the underlying systems and conscientiously replace them with others.



  • Regularly combing through donor lists, looking for those who might make good board members someday.
  • Assigning specific donors to specific Board members and using available software to track their engagement. Regularly communicating information about these donors (including news of any gift they might make) immediately to their assigned Board member.
  • Regularly offering Board/donor interaction training, mentorship, and practice.
  • Annual donor cultivation and solicitation planning that is donor specific for the land trust’s most important donors.
  • Regular Board level discussions about specific donors and Board member interactions with them. Landowner relations are a regular topic at Board meetings; why not extend that to major gift prospects?
  • Regular, systematic transfer of power at the Board level – using term limits – so that new people are finding their way to the Board and carrying these donor relationships forward all the time.
  • Communicating “who” will be attending specific events more so than “how many” so Board members have a chance to prioritize their time.
  • Tracking who wrote notes or called whom, and then using that information to make writing and calling assignments next year.
  • Regularly holding Board members and staff accountable for introducing key donors to each other, instead of carrying the entire relationship forward alone.


What systems do you need to implement to change your status quo? What systems are you conscious of needing to change?



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 Sergio Cerrato courtesy Pixabay



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1 Comment
  • Sally
    Posted at 14:51h, 21 May

    A wise woman I know counseled me that “culture eats strategy every time.” If you recruit, support or keep a board/board members who believe that fundraising is something icky, you’re in for a long slog. Fundraising and/or connecting board members should be publically recognized and thanked for their efforts at every board meeting and in between