4 Ways to Set Board Members Up for Happily Ever After: How Fundraising is Storytelling

In the past series of posts I’ve talked about the reasons many board members loathe fundraising.  It boils down to: (1) fear (see here, here and here; (2) lack of clarity about their role (see here, here and here)., and (3) insufficient framing, training, coaching and cheer leading by staff.  As much as we staff love to blame our board members for failing to step up to the plate, often our first step to find the real culprit should be taking a look in our own mirrors.

Board members often say they will [do fundraising] and then they don’t [follow through]. Do you know why?  You haven’t set them up for success with a clear framework, fantastic training, top-notch coaching and inspiring cheerleading.  You will find that board members deeply appreciate this kind of backup.  They need clear goals, structure and inspiration to wake up their passion and keep them committed to your organization’s success. They need a really compelling story to tell and a way to tell it.
Sadly, staff often contributes to the fear and loathing board members feel when we provide only half-baked direction and support. You may think you’re offering support – and no doubt you are likely doing some things right — yet you may still be falling down in other key areas. Today’s post talks about the role of staff, and suggests four ways staff can do a much better job helping board members succeed in their important role.
(1) FRAMING: Setting an approach or query within an appropriate context to achieve a desired result or elicit a precise answer.

What if you were to frame ‘fundraising’ for your board as being simply about telling stories; then building relationships with folks who are interested in and intrigued by those stories, and then guiding these interested parties to the place where they, too, can become part of the story?  Whenever my friends say to me: “Oh, your job must be so difficult!  I can’t imagine having to go out and ask people for money,” my response is that I’m not asking people for money. I’m asking people for love.  It’s the difference between ‘fundraising’ and ‘philanthropy’. I ask folks to jump into a really awesome story and become a part of the plot.
When we frame fundraising as merely asking for money we fail to offer our board an appropriate context for their task.  Fundraising must be viewed as a servant to philanthropy. No one is asking for money merely for the sake of money.  They’re asking to serve a greater purpose and are engaging others in a compelling story; then matching folks who are interested in this story with a cause they value and a solution they can endorse.
(2) TRAINING:  Organized activity aimed at imparting information and/or instructions to improve the recipient’s performance or to help him or her attain a required level of knowledge or skill.
When fundraising is framed as storytelling, then training can be ongoing and revolve around the mission: stories of people who are helped and problems that are solved; not simply around sales techniques which many people find distasteful.  If you think hiring someone to come in and lead your board in solicitation role plays is sufficient, think again. Such trainings have a place, but if we start and stop there whatever the board hears will be in one ear and out the other. Our job as staff is to provide ‘mission moments’ on a regular basis so that board members can become truly inspired by the ways the organization is making a real impact in people’s lives.
No one is more wrapped up in your story than your committed, dedicated, passionate board members [or at least this should be the case if you’re doing your job connecting board members to the mission on a regular basis].  No one cares more about sharing this story.   And no one is better positioned to help the story move forward than the prospects with whom your board members are connecting.
Cartoon image of old bearded storyteller
(3) COACHING:  Extending traditional training methods to include focus on (1) an individual’s needs and accomplishments, (2) close observation, and (3) impartial and non-judgmental feedback on performance.

Your board members are story tellers.  This is what they do in their role as ambassadors, advocates and askers. Have you ever had a board member complain that “we’re a well-kept secret?” Well, this is what happens when board members aren’t out there in the community sharing your vision, mission and values. If no one tells your story, then no one will care what happens. A story untold will never unfold.
You must teach your board members how to tell the story.  Take them out for coffee.  Talk with them about what inspires them. Ask them to tell you about a story that moved them related to your organization’s work.  Suggest little ways they could share that story with others.  Tell them that talk with them has inspired you!  Help them to understand that fundraising is about doing exactly what the two of you are doing – having coffee… making small talk… learning about what each other cares about… trading stories… and helping one another act on shared values.

Smiley faces showing people will forget what you said quote by Maya Angelou

(4) CHEERLEADING:  Being an enthusiastic and vocal supporter.
Often we think of cheerleading as rather thoughtless and frothy; the best cheerleaders emphasize the ‘leading.  They inspire action and team spirit. For example, I’m a huge San Francisco Giants fan; they just won the World Series!!! Aside from great pitching and defense, a lot of their win can be attributed to the cheerleading of two players, Brian Wilson (who kept them going all season long) and Hunter Pence (who rallied them with a passionate clubhouse cheerleading session when the Giants, down by two games in a best of five series, were all but counted out).  Passion, especially when it comes from leaders, counts for a lot.
Staff must energetically lead with their own passion to instill passion in others. You’ve got to be excited about what you do.  You got to be excited about the mission of your organization. You’ve got to be excited about being on a team of remarkable individuals – and this includes your board – who are all dedicated to the same vision. You’ve got to actively guide your volunteers towards success. If you doubt the importance of cheerleading, see what some of the Giants players had to say about Hunter Pence’s speech:
“It wasn’t even so much what he said. It was the intensity,” Vogelsong said. “It was a great speech. Nothing off what you’d think you’d hear, but it was the way he said it. I can’t speak for everyone else in the room, but that hit home for me.

Said center fielder Angel Pagan: “We need people like this here. Hunter is a very positive person. It doesn’t matter if the game was 20-0. He believes we can win it. He gave us that energy, that fight.”

inspire be inspired cartoon by gaping void
Just as your board influences their connections and your prospects, so do you have the power to influence your board.  (1) Tell them that fundraising is storytelling; (2) Tell them the story; (3) Help them to tell the story, and (4) Keep telling them what a great job they’re doing with storytelling, and how many people are being affected as a result. When the story is shared with the right people – with inspiring anecdotes and details that staff provide and/or the board members experience first-hand – then, and only then, will your compelling tale have a happy ending!
If you had to choose one key to setting your board members up for success with fundraising, what would it be?



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I’m Claire and I want to help you raise more money, reach more people and build long-lasting relationships with your supporters. Take a look in the archives.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Brilliant post. Thanks

  2. Wow! This posts needs to be on the front of a high-profile magazine somewhere, so well explained! This is the ultimate piece to set your BOD up for success!

  3. Thank YOU.

  4. I appreciate your comments Natasha. I hope it's helpful to you and to those with whom you share it.

  5. Claire,

    I really appreciated your article. I think it fits very well with fund raising plans that. Typically set goals, identify prospects, encourage board members to set an example and seeking matching donations etc. etc. What is striking about your article is that you have focused on one aspect of fund raising- board members, and have framed your advice in a manner which draws upon tools which are often used in organization change management. Thanks for sharing

  6. Thanks so much for this comment Paul. I'm appreciative! And thanks for all your good work as well.

  7. Great ideas on how staff can play a role. The one key to fundraising success that is often left out is that it has to be a team effort between the staff and the board. Since the board is ultimately responsible, they have to have a hand in maintaining the culture over time. I know I've said this before, but the board, as an entity, bears ultimate responsibility. They can and do delegate lots of things, but they put the organization at risk if they aren't part of building and maintaining a culture of philanthropy.

  8. It truly works best when there's a board/staff partnership. Neither can abdicate responsibility to the other.

  9. This is great Claire and exactly what I do with my consulting work. We cannot expect board members to be professionals in governance and fundraising without any education or training.

  10. Thanks Emily!

  11. This is right on target…thanks so much for the pointed conversation, identifying the keys to successful engagement for board members and staff to be successful

  12. My pleasure. Thanks for reading/commenting.

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