The Board

(Excerpted from Major and Planned Gifts Unmasked, available here:

It was 7:30 in the morning and I was walking down the main hall of the hospital. Heading straight toward me in their scrubs were two cardiovascular surgeons. One was whispering to the other. They were about to bust my chops.

“What we can’t figure out is how you can ask people for money every day for a living!” one proclaimed. They both chuckled and looked very pleased with themselves. Something told me to smile and reply, “Well, I can’t figure out how you guys can cut people’s chests open every day for a living!” They laughed, admitted I had a point, and we all continued on our way.

The point the doctors were admitting to? We’re all given gifts and talents to use in life that may be very different from the person next door. I think about that when I reflect on board members, and what we ask them to do for our organization. We expect a lot from them. We need to think about that sometimes. Do we feel entitled to their help? Or do we earn it?

The Campaign was foundering and no one knew why, or what to do about it. We were blessed to have recruited two committed co-chairs. We had five team captains, five members of each team, and everybody had five prospects. We leveled a forest for all the paper we gave them and had a snazzy kickoff meeting.

Then we sat back and waited for the gifts to pour in.

The silence was deafening. No one was making their visits. I was desperate to know what I could do. I called Bart’s office and asked for a time to meet with him.

Bart, God rest his soul, was an alumnus of the school and a member of the Campaign Committee. He was a highly respected and successful orthodontist. When I arrived at his office I was invited back into the open work area, with at least a dozen dental chairs in low cubicles scattered around.

“He’s over there.” The assistant pointed, and Bart gave me a wave from across the room. He was putting braces on a young lady’s teeth! Not the ideal time to have a conversation, but this was my chance and I had to make the best of it. After a little small talk Bart looked up at me from his patient’s mouth and posed a profound question.

“Would I ask you to do this?”

“I hope not,” I answered, “and I bet she hopes not, too!” I thought I was being clever. Bart was completely serious.

“Then why,” he continued, “would you and the school ask me to do something I’m no good at. I don’t know how to ask for money. That’s what you do for a living. And you’re good at it. I’m not. I don’t want to do it and I know I’d be no good at it.

“Ask me to do what I know how to do. Host a party. Bring a group of people together who can help the school. Take you to breakfast with someone who can help, and point you in the direction of others who can. That’s what I know how to do. You should ask me to do those things.”

Jim Frick, the legendary vice president for development at the University of Notre Dame once told me, “One third of your Board will do whatever you ask. Another third will step up, depending on whether you’ve made the effort to build a relationship with them. And the final third will never help, no matter what, so don’t stress about it.”

Anyway, we took Bart’s advice, overhauled the Campaign strategy, asked the Committee to host gatherings, and followed each one up with staff visits. The Campaign took off like a skyrocket.

And the party at Bart’s house was one of the best.

When it comes to engaging members of your Board in fundraising, I want you to remember eight words. Just eight words. You are going to ask your Board members to make these eight words their mantra when it comes to engaging in fundraising for your organization.

The eight words?

“Is there a door I can open today?”

The answer is (and Board members will admit this to themselves), every Board member can open a door. She or he can bring someone to campus for a tour and lunch with the President. Host a coffee. Reach out to a foundation board member they know. Whatever. It doesn’t matter.

Every board member can open a door. Not every day, not even every month, but every so often. When the magic happens and a Board member does open a door, it is shouted from the rooftops! Your job is to “catch someone doing something good,” as the management experts tell us. Other Board members will think, “Gosh, I want to be recognized like that. Can I open a door? Yeah, I can.”

Sadly, there will be a Board member or two who, after a few months, will tell you, “You know, I’ve thought about it and I really can’t think of any door I can open.”

That person does not belong on your Board. You know it and they know it.

I coined these magic eight words to engage Board members many years ago and they have never let me down. They won’t let you down, either.