News and analysis
March 22, 2016

Bad Boards and Pushy Millennials: Fundraisers Share Strategies That Work — and War Stories

At this week’s annual meeting of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, changing demographics and the competition for donors were frequent topics of conversation. Here’s a look at the most interesting perspectives of expert speakers and what participants were saying throughout the convention hall.

Troublesome Boards and Long-Term Thinking

In a session called "How to Survive Your Board," fundraisers drew caricatures of trustees who are difficult to deal with.

One conferencegoer drew a ghost — a board member who never shows up at meetings. Another drew a board member sleeping, and another drew a figure with a microscope, symbolizing a micromanager.

Alice Ferris and James Anderson, founding partners of GoalBusters Consulting, who led the session, gave several tips for how to deal with troublesome board members, including:

  • Make sure they understand what’s expected of them, and make them feel appreciated for the work they do.
  • Train board members to do what you want them to do, including making donor calls.
  • Establish term limits for board positions so bad trustees can leave gracefully.
  • Create emeritus board positions that carry an important-sounding title without many responsibilities. Problem board members may move into such positions.

But even those steps may not be enough, Ms. Ferris said. "There will be some people you just have to let go, and there may be fallout afterward," she said.

In another session, on how small nonprofits can attract big gifts, a conferencegoer asked the presenters what she could do if the board and other leaders were locking her out of meetings.

Amy Eisenstein, a fundraising consultant, said it might be was a sign to start searching for a new job

Ms. Eisenstein also touched on another recurring topic at the conference: That board members and other nonprofit leaders must think long-term. She gave a hypothetical situation of a fundraiser who gets a $1 million donation one year and raises 12 big gifts from new donors totaling $120,000 the next year.

"The board thinks you’re doing horribly," Ms. Eisenstein said. "I think you’re doing great. You’ve just cultivated and gotten new gifts from 12 major-gift donors. We need to think about their lifetime value. I don’t want you to just think about this one-time gift, I want you to think about the next gift — and the next gift and the next gift."

Others were more colorful in their language: "A lot of board members need to be taken out and spanked" for their focus on short-term results, said Adrian Sargeant, who teaches fundraising at Plymouth University and directs the Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy.

Stalled Diversity Efforts

Elizabeth Smith, executive director of the Hyams Foundation, said that when her organization sought to step up giving to groups dealing with racial justice and diversity issues, it began by looking internally. At the time, she said, 90 percent of the foundation’s board was white, so it made changes to ensure the leadership was more representative of the people the foundation serves.

Hyams has also sought to diversify program staff by accepting people who work for a year at the foundation through the Proteus Fund’s Diversity Fellowship.

Miki Akimoto, a senior official in the philanthropy division of U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management, offered these suggestions for recruiting diverse board members:

  • People tend to know other people who are similar to themselves. Widen your circle.
  • Think about what diversity means for your organization: it may mean diversity of race, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities. But it may also involve diversity of geography, age, or socioeconomic status. "Frame diversity within the context of your organization," she says.

One senior fundraiser acknowledged an uncomfortable problem, especially when it comes to boards: Old white men still account for a significant share of giving, and many nonprofits worry about losing those donations if they appoint diverse trustees who aren’t as wealthy or well-connected.

But nonprofits must be willing to take the plunge and tap new sources of wealth in unexpected places, the fundraiser said.

The AFP recently released a Diversity and Inclusion Survey Report, which found that 59 percent of fundraisers believe that fundraising staffs are no more ethnically diverse now than they were in 2001.

The report also found that 75 percent of fundraisers say inclusiveness is a priority for their organizations.

Competing for Donors

Many speakers emphasized the importance of tending to donors, especially the most loyal and generous. As more charities are taking action to keep their supporters happy, the pressure is on to get creative.

The theme threaded through a session on bequests and other planned gifts led by Brian Sagrestano, a fundraising consultant, and Robert Wahlers, vice president for development at Meridian Health Affiliated Foundations.

Fundraisers seeking planned gifts, they said, should be ready to accommodate supporters’ financial and altruistic needs, regardless of their age. For example, they should offer charitable gift annuities to people who may want to give but fear depleting reserves they may need as they age. The money goes to the charity to invest — it will eventually get all of it when the person dies — while donors get an immediate tax break and payments while they are alive.

Mr. Wahlers pointed out that "trailing boomers" — the younger half of the baby-boom generation, born from 1955 to 1964 and often carrying financial burdens — may be better candidates for planned-gift agreements rather than big outright contributions that require cash.

Audrey Kintzi, vice president for development and alumni relations at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, spoke at another session about the growing momentum for "thankathons" — calling people to thank them for their generosity. Such events, said Ms. Kintzi, may also be a great way to help skittish board members get comfortable with fundraising.

Ms. Kintzi also urged fundraisers to say to people who have given a significant donation, "Can I ask you who inspired you to make this gift?" It's a good way to start conversations that could lead to deeper involvement with a cause, she says. She advised avoiding asking for money while still getting to know a donor. Asking for $1,000 on a first donor visit, she noted, "is like French kissing on the first date."

Demanding Millennials

Millennials, now in their 20s and early 30s, are moving up the fundraising ladder — and making more and more demands, some said.

Senior development leaders with decades of experience expressed a familiar lament: Millennials have unrealistic expectations of how quickly they should advance.

Nonprofit managers also should expect more demands for flexibility from their most talented young workers. At one packed session about women and leadership, young women lined up at the microphone to ask questions of speakers focused on how they would balance child rearing and work.

Sarah Durham, a session speaker and founder of the marketing consultancy Big Duck, said she leaves the office at 5 p.m., even when her colleagues are still working, so she can eat dinner with her family. "Look around you," she said, urging listeners to let go of guilt. "Nobody cares if you leave at 5." The audience erupted in applause.

The money goes to the charity to invest and eventually all of it when the person dies, while the donor gets immediate tax break and payments while they are alive

Send an email to Heather Joslyn, Dan Parks, Tim Sandoval, and Eden Stiffman.