3 Steps to Take if You Want to Join a Nonprofit Board

Cross-posted from Idealist Careers

Earlier this month, I shared some ways that serving on a non-profit board in the last year has helped my career.  I thought that it was only fitting to move onto some strategies for getting yourself onto a board.

First of all (and most importantly), get the idea out of your head that there is one route to join a nonprofit board of directors!  As I mentioned in my previous post, I was asked to join the national board of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network after working as a pro-bono fundraising advisor to the National Director for more than six months and at no point during that time had I given any thought to the possibility of getting onto the board.

With all of that said, here are three steps that you can take today to get yourself onto a nonprofit board:

Identify your strengths and key skill sets

When most nonprofit boards are engaged in recruiting new members, they tend to do so with specific skills and/or perspectives that are needed.  By taking the time to identify your own strengths and skill sets, you can be ready to respond to organizations seeking someone like you.  One resource that I found helpful in this regard was the strengths profile that you can create at ViaMe.org.  I also think that a little self-awareness is helpful in getting a feel for the culture of a board and whether you would be a good fit.

Determine the type of organizations with which you want to be affiliated

After you have a solid grasp of your strengths and skill sets, you should give some serious thought to the types of organizations you want to support as a board member.  One key question that may help this process could be “What groups do you currently give money or volunteer for?”

Remember that as a board member, you have fiduciary (read: financial) and legal responsibility for the organization as one of its leaders. As I tell people who want to get into fundraising (which is also an important responsibility of board members), you should focus on organizations where you have a passion for the mission and work, as you will be expected to give your time, talent and treasure to this organization. This passion will be needed to keep you going through committee meetings, interviews for senior leaders, fundraising events and the many other things you’ll be doing as a board member.

Put yourself out there, then keep your eyes and ears open

Now that you know your strengths and the kinds of organizations you want to serve, it’s time to put yourself out there!  Here are a few ways to explore potential board opportunities.

  • Reach out directly. If there are specific organizations whose board you would be interested in joining, you should get introduced to or introduce yourself to the executive leadership or a board member and share your interest; who knows, you may be reaching out as they are looking to expand their board. If they aren’t try volunteering with the organization, outside of board capacity. Volunteering is a great way to learn more about the organization, get to know the staff, and be the first to know about potential opportunities.
  • Let your network know. Whether or not you have specific groups in mind, you should take some advice from former Silicon Valley CEO Heidi Roizen: ”Don’t believe you don’t have to work at it; you have to make it easy for people to connect the dots.”  After deciding that she wanted to pursue a seat on a corporate board, she sent 150 e-mails to people in her network — some who were on the boards of companies that funded her tech venture, other corporate executives, recruiters and friends — to share her interest.  While her experience is focusing on corporate boards, the key is to make it easy for people to find you and you start by letting people know you want a board position.
  • Be open to alternatives. If you aren’t ready for a formal board position or one just simply isn’t available, consider junior boards. And, as I stated earlier, it’s never too early or too late to get involved with an organization you care about. Offer to volunteer or take on pro-bono projects, as I did with the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network.

I hope that you find this approach helpful as you consider nonprofit board service!

I’m Quoted . . .


As you can see above (feel free to click the photo to  zoom in), I was quoted in the newest book on major gifts fundraising, Rainmaking: The Fundraiser’s Guide to Landing Big Gifts by Andrew Olsen, CFRE & Roy Jones, CFRE.  If you are interested in learning some great strategies for starting or refreshing your organization’s major gifts strategy, check out this book!  For more information and to buy it, go here.

If you end up buying a copy, please feel free to share your thoughts and how you find it helpful in your work in the comments below.

4 Tips for Managing a Student Giving Program

Last month, we completed the tenth annual Resident Members Gift Campaign (RMGC) at International House.  As my colleague was out on maternity leave, I served as the lead advisor to the Campaign Co-Chairs and their Steering Committee.  I am proud to report that this was a banner year, as the residents were able to break the previous record for the most money raised — more than $7,200.

To provide a bit more background, this year’s RMGC ran for a total of 40 days and the Steering Committee was composed of 21 members and 3 co-chairs who represented a wide swath of our resident community.  During the first two weeks of the Campaign, Committee Members focused on soliciting a specific group of 10-15 of their fellow residents.  Following this period, it was open season to approach the entire community and was done through numerous venues, including tabling at the 24-hour entrance/exit and outside the Dining Room, a sponsored musical performance event, a used bicycle sale, and having Committee members address small groups during normal resident programs.  This year’s funds went toward the creation of an endowed fund to support greater resident engagement with alumni through programming.

As I reflect on the experience, I wanted to share four tips for managing a student giving program:

  1. Set mutually agreed-upon goals: After going through a training session for the Committee members on basic face-to-face fundraising techniques, they were able to mutually agree on Campaign goals of raising $5,000 from a minimum of 350 resident members.  By virtue of having past Committee members serving again, they were able to provide some context for and clarity of what it really takes to meet the goals.
  2. Communication is key: I made it a high priority to communicate as regularly as possible a) with individual Committee members about their personal progress and when the prospects on their lists made gifts; b) with the entire Committee about their progress on their goals; and c) with the resident community through e-blasts, signage and updates to the I-House website on the Campaign’s progress.  While all of these efforts required a great deal of my time (and that of my colleagues), it was absolutely important to keep everyone in the loop and on the same page.
  3. Be supportive & encouragingHowever long your campaign runs, you will need to keep the students encouraged and feeling enthusiastic.  One way that I did this was simply through my regular check-ins with the Committee members, whether via e-mail or in person.  If they have questions or concerns, be sure to respond to them ASAP.  It also helps if your campaign has a history of success, which always helps propel the students forward as they never want to be the year that doesn’t make their goals.  Another important element of our Campaign is that a group of Alumni Trustees provide a challenge grant to the resident members to provide additional encouragement — and it keeps these Trustees engaged and connected with each year’s class of residents.
  4. Start recruiting early!  As I write this post, we already have one co-chair committed for next year’s Campaign, who served on this year’s Steering Committee.  If you have some bright stars with potential on your committee, don’t be afraid of asking them about their interest in participating in the effort next year.

What other tips have you found useful in working with student giving programs?  Please share your experiences in the comments!

Are you making the time to be creative?

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One of the many highlights of the first day of the 2013 AFP International Conference on Fundraising was to hear from Grammy Award winner John Legend about his philanthropic work in education.

One particular lesson that he shared during his conversation with AFP Board Chair Bob Carter was about making time to be creative.  Legend said that he schedules studio time to write songs and doesn’t leave those sessions without at least one song.  I thought that this was a particularly worthwhile lesson for fundraising professionals, with the regular expectations that we produce fresh content — whether it be appeals, newsletter copy, annual reports, or anything else.

Do you schedule time to be creative?  If so, how?

How One Web Search Led to a $20,000 Gift


As International House’s Board Chairman retired last year, the Board announced that it was designating an endowed fund to  benefit programming and resident scholarships named in honor of the outgoing chairman.  In addition to the funds designated by the Board, my office was charged with raising additional monies in support of this named fund from the contingent of our major donors who are particular fans of the chairman.

After reviewing our donor files to confirm all of the recent donors who should be solicited for this special named fund, I did some online sleuthing in the hopes of uncovering a few more people who would want to honor the Chairman by supporting the fund.  After a particularly revealing search on Muckety (a useful site that details personal, corporate and non-profit relationships for some of the more connected people in the U.S.), I found a gentleman who used to work with the Chairman in one of his past careers and after confirming that he had a private foundation, he was added to the list.  Now, let the record reflect that we had not previously contacted this prospect, as he was not in our donor database which dates back to 1986.

Based on the name of this post, I think that you can see where I’m going with this . . . we sent this cold prospect an ask for the named fund and after a phone conversation with our president, he sent in a check for $20,000 from his private foundation!!  Let this be a lesson, dear reader, that a cold ask can easily be warmed up with the right relationships already in place.  It also reminds us of the value of doing thorough research before any major solicitation effort.

Do you have any success stories like this one where solid research and the right relationships made a measurable difference?  Please share in the comments!


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Quick Tip: Telling Your Nonprofit’s Story in the 990 Report


Last week, Association of Fundraising Professionals International CEO Andrew Watt participated in the New York City Chapter’s Annual Membership Meeting and had a lot of great things to say.  One of the smart and particularly easy ideas that he suggested was to ensure that the organizational description in your annual 990 report really tells your story, as many individual, corporate and foundation prospects & donors access these documents to learn a bit more about your group.

Commonly, since the organization’s Finance Office compiles the 990 report, the Development staff is not included in drafting the narrative text.  Even though my colleagues and I do assist our Finance Office with the 990 preparation, I am giving this section a special look in our most recent report and will have some edits to suggest going forward.

Do you and/or your colleagues collaborate with your Finance Office on the preparation of your organization’s 990?  Have you reviewed the organizational narrative?


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How long should you stay in your job?

I recently attended an event with the founder of a national search firm that manages many fundraising searches annually.

One of the interesting things that he advised was to stay in a fundraising position for a minimum of 3 or 3.5 years.  In his opinion, results from your first two years of any position are predominantly a result of things done by a predecessor (unless of course it is a new position or there are other mitigating circumstances to consider) and that it isn’t until your third year on the job that your own ideas and initiatives begin to produce results.  While I don’t totally agree with this assertion, I do understand it.

Do you agree or disagree with this assertion?  I’m very interested to hear your thoughts.


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A Story of Salutations

As I am currently knee-deep in data for International House’s Fall Appeal, I thought it would be timely to share a dear friend and mentor’s story of a year-end appeal that she received from a school that she attended.  I’ll let her tell it . . .

I received the company’s year-end appeal — a very long, boring, obviously mass-directed letter with this salutation “Dear Jane Arthur-Arthur Doe” — so many mistakes right off the bat.  For years, I’ve received mail from the company addressed this way and for years — by phone, emails, and snail-mail — I’ve tried to correct the error without success.  The letter’s BRE attracted me because it included a check-off box for donors-on-the-fence; it followed the box with something like, “If not now, perhaps later” and included a few lines for an explanatory note.
I took the company up at its offer, checked the fence-sitting box and, without resorting to verbal violence, told the Director of Development that: 1) Basic English usage for salutations required “Dear First Name or Dear Nickname or Dear Ms./Mrs./Miss/Mr./Dr./Professor/Reverend/Pastor/Rabbi (etc.), followed by a Last Name; 2) I’m an alumna known as Jane Arthur Doe — one Arthur and no hyphens, please; 3) As an alumna, I deserve a special letter when you’re asking me for money or telling me anything — “attention must be paid” (all credit due to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman) with a letter based on some research, not only for the correct use of my name, but in acknowledging my status as a former dancer and contributor to the company’s remarkable history.
My note obviously took up more than a few lines so I inserted it into the BRE and mailed it — prepaid, of course.  Two weeks later, I received a brief note from the DOD.  She corrected the salutation and hoped that I’d reconsider and support the company in the future.

Since my dear friend told me about this, I’ve been pre-printing the donor listing as we have it on file for each donor on the buckslip that comes in their direct mail appeals.  Though most people have not paid it much attention, it has been nice to receive updates from I-House alumni and donors confirming how they prefer to be addressed.  As my mentor said, it is important to provide these opportunities to meet the prospective/current/lapsed donor on their own level.

How do you assure that your organization’s donor data is up-to-date and correct?  Do your direct mail appeals provide an opportunity  for donors to update or correct their contact information and listings?