Issue 2 – Fall 2013: Staff retention depends on board involvement

November 20, 2013 , , ,

Fundraisers rely on board members to play an active role in fundraising so that ambitious goals can be met. Yet as I researched the underlying causes of premature job turnover among fundraisers, I heard them describe boards who:

– set arbitrary goals without considering real data or donor trends

– opt for high-risk high-cost fundraising events over building relationships with major donors

– are unrealistic about how long it takes to build sustainable revenue

Almost one in three (31%) development professionals who were planning to resign cited problems between them and their boards as the key reason for their early departure!

Board members acknowledge their uninspiring results. In my survey of 4,500 Canadian and American board members, while four out of five respondents admitted they have responsibility for raising money, they rated their boards’ collective performance in fundraising at a lacklustre 4.7 on a 7-point scale and their own personal contribution to raising money at 4.6. 

A parallel survey with Chief Executive Officers echoed board members’ concerns with their own performance. Only 30% of CEO s surveyed said they were moderately to fully satisfied with their board’s efforts in raising money. The majority (55%) admitted that convincing board members to fulfill their fundraising duties was the least rewarding aspect of their jobs. I have come to believe that defining board members’ responsibilities in fundraising differently will unlock hidden potential among Canada’s leadership volunteers – and address a key frustration that drives senior staff to the drastic act of resignation. As the recent recession began to take its toll on charities, my firm surveyed 25,000 donors about how they were managing their philanthropy amidst a deep financial crisis. We especially wanted to know what charities could do to make sure they stayed on donors’ priority lists for funding if they had to cut back on giving overall.

Donors offered many helpful suggestions about restructuring campaigns, communicating differently and bringing a tone of restraint to high-profile events. But their number one recommendation by far was this: If a leadership volunteer asks me to give, it will be almost impossible to say no.

What is it about volunteers – board members, in particular – that makes them able to mobilize donors even in the depths of a recession? Influence, it seems. Donors say that volunteering one’s time and taking responsibility for the welfare of a charitable cause at the highest level is the ultimate in community service. Donors’ respect for leadership volunteers translates not only into a greater willingness to give, but a willingness to give as generously they can.

With the extraordinary power they wield through the influence that comes with the title, you would think that board members would be eager to capitalize on this asset to ensure the financial security of the charities they lead. But, for the most part, there is more criticism than praise about their work in fundraising from their chief executive officers, from professional fundraisers and from board members themselves.


Our research found that very little is expected of board members regarding fundraising, and the expectations that do exist do not necessarily produce results. Board members were expected to attend meetings, sit on one or more committees, and “participate in fundraising” (though participation was almost never defined in concrete terms). So it is not surprising, then, that when we asked board members what they thought they were responsible for, they were unsure. They tended to claim the safe ground, like attending fundraising and donor recognition events to meet and socialize with donors. They also thought they should be doing things that were actually the responsibility of staff, such as evaluating fundraising staff performance or developing the fundraising plan.


Since board members’ high-level volunteer status gives them considerable influence with donors, their responsibilities should bring them into contact with people who give in ways that produce results and build board members’ confidence. For some board members, that means occasionally doing the adrenalin-pumping work of asking for generous gifts. But there are many more ways in which board members can use their influence to raise money and build solid relationships – saying thank you with a phone call or a handwritten note, stewarding relationships with existing donors they know personally, and welcoming and engaging donors at recognition and information events, for example.

The more board members connect with donors in ways like these, the more they will start to comprehend just how influential they are. This will raise their confidence and make them willing to engage in even more ambitious work. With the energetic participation of their leadership volunteers assured, staff will close gifts sooner and build net profit higher and faster. The inevitable result will be greater job satisfaction and longer tenure of professional fundraisers and their CEO s.

Canadian donors say they have more money to give, but that they are holding back. They are waiting, they say, for the right approach by the right person for the right reason. For charities that are able to mobilize their leadership volunteers in donor-centered ways, the future is very bright.

Data and conclusions are taken from Penelope Burk’s book, Donor-Centered Leadership, available direct from the publisher at