Board Stewardship: Conversations to Light a Fire Within

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Written by Dr. Lou Traina, CFRM, a Fundraising Consultant and IMPACT Coach.

We are concluding our series of interviews with Dr. Lou Traina, CFRM, on the fundraising cycle: from identification, qualification, cultivation, solicitation, and, in this article, stewardship. Lou is a Major Gift expert with an illustrious career raising millions of dollars for nonprofits and building strong relationships in the philanthropic community.

I think about stewardship as what happens after the first gift is made. This includes the relationship you continue to build, conveying the donation’s impact and what the organization is doing, and showing appreciation to your donor. I would like to talk about something specific, Board stewardship.

Lou Traina: In my experience, nonprofit organizations will often focus more on the expectations of the board charter (role and responsibility). We do a good job researching, prospecting, cultivating, and recruiting new Board members. We provide orientation and engage our Board members in the planning process. We ask for their financial support in addition to their volunteer service. We ask a lot of our Board. As the leader of your organization, is there more you can do to better engage and recognize them? Are you providing a level of stewardship equal to your top donors for each of your Board of Directors?

I believe Board members should receive equal stewardship. Our best major gift officers understand that each step in the moves management process is designed to ensure that giving is in the best interest of their donor. They are essentially philanthropic advisors for the donor. Accomplished major gift officers understand why giving is important for the donor and how meaningful it is to give. For many donors, giving is an essential and fundamental ingredient for finding greater meaning in their life. As organizational leaders, are you looking out for the best interest of your Board members? Do you have a good understanding of why your Board members volunteer their time, talents, and treasures? Do you know why their service is meaningful to their quality of life?

There is a technique I like that requires meeting one-on-one with a Board member and engaging in conversation about the importance of their service and why service is important to them. Usually, the CEO is invited to participate in these conversations as well. I prefer to create a customized instrument that focuses on essential themes important to the Board of Directors and allows the facilitator to guide the conversation along each theme. The process provides the opportunity for each Director to reflect on their service and, for the organization’s leader, the opportunity to better understand the meaning of their service.

When you say to create an instrument, what does that looks like? Is it a set of questions to discuss with Board members?

Lou Traina: Yes, I would also suggest designing an ‘interview guide’ that helps the Director reflect on those themes important to the organization. I would recommend topics such as the Board of Directors’ accomplishments, the organization’s achievements, and the Director’s personal experiences and success stories.

Such questions as, “Reflecting on this year’s Board accomplishments, what makes you most proud to be a member of this team?” You might also ask, “If you had to change one thing about the Board, what would it be, and why?” When it comes to their personal service, I would ask, “What makes you fulfilled with your personal service on the Board?” or “What makes you tick?” I would follow up with questions that allow the interviewee to share a story: “Is there one particular story or event that stands out that illustrates why you feel such pride in the Board, or pride in your service?”

It sounds to me that through engaging Board members in this process of conversation and reflection, you are trying to help the Board member have a stronger connection with the nonprofit and its mission. Is that what is happening here on a deeper level?

Lou Traina: Yes, it allows the Board member to reflect on why their service is important to them and share these reflections with someone they trust in a private, confidential setting. There is a caveat: the person conducting the interview needs to have skills of advocacy and reflection. The interviewer is advocating for the nonprofit’s cause and, through reflection, is connecting the Director’s meaning for service with the organization’s case for support. I believe the interview is a gift that is provided by the organization. The organization is recognizing their leadership and, more importantly, acknowledging why their service has meaning. Now that’s stewardship!

I would recommend designing the interview instrument to include the ‘ask’ for the end-of-year annual giving campaign, or perhaps for the leadership phase of a campaign. Directors give of their time, talents, and treasures.

Just as a major gift officer will engage in conversation with their major donors about the importance of their giving, the reflection interview can also add a component that probes why they give and the significance to their ‘meaning of life plan’. For example, suppose the organization is in the leadership phase of a capital campaign. In that case, you can ask why they are giving to the future of the organization, such as, “Is there a reason why you want to sustain your annual giving over and beyond your lifetime with an endowment gift?” You might follow with, “Is there a story that stands out about why a legacy gift is meaningful to you and your family?” You will be surprised at the responses and the stories and, guaranteed, have a lot more appreciation for the leadership you have assembled.

Do you have a hundred percent Board participation? What’s the composition of the Board like and so forth?

Lou Traina: And you are correct, just as many family, corporate, and community foundations will ask the question, “what percent of your Board give?”, individuals who are philanthropic will add another question, “tell us about the leadership of your Board?” The results of the Director interviews can be collected and a ‘leadership profile report’ created that provides the collection of ‘representative statements’ (verses individual Director statements). Profiles of the Board emerge that convey what attributes stand out regarding their wish to serve. The leadership profile report will tell the story about your Board’s ability to lead and protect the donors’ gifts. So, when a major gift donor asks you, “Do you have a hundred percent Board participation?” you could say, “We have spoken to each Board of Director separately in a private, confidential setting. Let me tell you about the kind of leadership we have on our Board.”

You would be surprised how much this one-hour conversation will “light the fire” for Directors. Some might be sitting back or even considering moving on. They may feel they haven’t done anything very worthwhile, but you can show them the work that they’re doing is impactful and valuable. I believe organizations must first strengthen Board stewardship before replacing Directors with new Directors. The Board reflection interviews are one example or process that can provide greater meaning for the Board of Directors. You are helping to engage Board leadership in the essential meaning for service and giving.

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