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.

The Bottom Line

Development is helping donors do the great things they want to do. But are those just empty words? Then this appeared in my Inbox:

“I was visiting with a prospect the other day. She asked what projects or funding I was looking for.

“I explained that my goal is to get to know her interests, her passions, and align those with the needs on campus.

“Her response: ‘So it sounds like you’re providing me with an invitation to dream a little.’”

Development, fundraising, advancement; whatever you want to call it, is letting go of our agenda, learning how to listen, and helping donors do the great things they want to do.

When It’s Time to Move On

“Rob, I wonder if you could talk about development folks making a move to a new organization. What should we consider before signing on to support a mission?”

Before you think about making a move, count “one Mississippi, two Mississippi…”  Has your current position really run its course?  Many have hurt their careers by moving before they should.

There are two occasions when you will have the chance to learn.  One is during the interview itself, when you will be asked, “Do you have any questions of us?” and yes, you do!  But only a couple.  More can be annoying.

The second opportunity is once an offer has been extended to you.  Hands down, this is the best time.  The organization wants you and will be as forthcoming as possible to get you on board.  Ask for a meeting to discuss the offer in person and to go over the questions you have.

There are 7 things you want to know about a potential new job:

Will you and your new boss be a good fit?  All else pales by comparison.  Can you and your prospective new boss have coffee? Take a tour of the organization. What does your gut tell you? Listen to it.

Salary.  Will it be minimum 10% higher than your present salary? A word of caution: Be careful about a salary that is 25% or more above your present compensation.  High salaries come with even higher expectations.

What are the expectations your new boss would have of you, in the first month and in the first year?  Are those realistic?  Look at those expectations with sober, honest eyes.  Walking into ridiculous expectations is the leading cause of failure in a new job.

Can you represent this organization with pride and enthusiasm?  Passion is an overused word.  Will you be proud of your new place?  Can you get revved up about it every day?

How many development staff have left in the last 18 months?

A question to ask of your potential boss: “What upsets you?”

And finally, are the CEO and the Board engaged in making visits and opening doors? Or is that someone else’s (your) job?

As much as you want that new job, make sure it is the right one for you.


We’re all guilty of it. We use a word so often, so randomly, that its real meaning gets lost. Sadly, that is the case now with the most important word in fundraising! The other day a friend offered an important reminder.

We were talking over coffee about relationships. She smiled. “I actually have a great story about that,” and she told it to me.

“I first met this person through one of her employees. She had been a sporadic donor to us, giving maybe $1,000 every so often.

“Over the next three years I practiced ‘intentional cultivation’ and stewardship of her annual gifts. I reached out to remember special occasions in her life and created opportunities for her to learn more about our organization.

“She became a close friend.

“One day during a stewardship visit, she got up and closed her office door. She had recently learned she would be the sole heir of a large estate and wanted to include our organization in her plans. A $1.6 million gift followed a few months later.

“Rob, thanks for asking me to share that story. It helps to keep those wins in mind. They teach us about the possibilities when we take the time and make the effort to build genuine relationships.

“Was the gift unexpected? Yes.

“Would the gift have come our way without the relationship? No.”

Not Being Afraid

“Can I tell you something that may shock you? There are a great many fundraisers who would rather leave their job than admit they don’t know how to do something.”

There. I said it. Now I waited for the disapproving look, the smirk, or a roll of the eyes.

But this veteran fundraiser did none of that. Instead she told me, “You’re absolutely right.”

That’s an awful truth of ours.

Is that you? Do you feel lost sometimes, or a little bit unsure? Do you know someone like that? It’s okay to feel that way. Trust me, everyone does at some point.

We hope no one sees it in us, but we sure wish there was someone, or some thing we could turn to.

How’s this:

The things you know about major gifts fundraising you didn’t realize you knew.

Specific steps for getting the first visit. Your one goal for that first visit, 95% of the time.

How to build a relationship with a donor.

The eight words that will get your Board members to help you.

How to make the donor feel truly appreciated for their gift.

The one thing you can do, in 1% of your time, to capture 90% of your organization’s planned gifts potential, and,

A step-by-step plan to get your President involved in fundraising, effectively.

“Major and Planned Gifts Unmasked” is available now on Amazon and at