Setting up a Volunteer Board? Avoid These Two Traps

If you are a fundraiser who manages a board of volunteers, or if you’re thinking of setting up a board, you know the stakes are HIGH. When you get it right you will raise way more money. But if you’re not careful, this strategy can waste everybody’s time and cause you sleepless nights.


This strategy can bring rich rewards because good board members extend your appeal to people who trust them more than they would trust you alone. Very often they move in powerful circles. Ideally they can help secure large donations, either personally, or through a company, trust or special events.


During the workshop I delivered for the Volunteer Board Fundraising Special Interest Group this week, I revealed two dangerous PITFALLS for anyone setting up a board.


Pitfall 1. The charity doesn’t persuasively make the purpose of the board clear from the start. Charities can only carry out their good work when they receive funds to pay for them. Appointing a volunteer board is sometimes an ideal tactic to help this happen. Make this purpose of the board clear from the start, otherwise a fundraising board can all too easily believe their primary purpose is to give advice to the (amateurish?) charity (eg about how it should run its service / its communications etc). Clearly board members have a range of skills, and a smart charity values these and is open to its ideas. But if the board is not primarily focussing its energy on raising funds, it is not fulfilling its purpose.


Pitfall 2. The charity settles for someone who will not be the best possible chair. The most important factor that’s within your control, which determines the success of a volunteer board, is who you appoint to lead. This sounds obvious, yet I have found that too many charities settle for someone less than ideal, and spend months (or years!) suffering the fallout, in terms of stress and under-achievement. What are the three most important qualities of the chair? My research suggests:


1) They are able to (and will) LEAD the group
2) They are able to (and will) set a HIGH FINANCIAL BENCHMARK (ie their own gift or a gift they can secure early)
3) They are INFLUENTIAL in their sector


I know many managers have had the experience of recruiting an employee who at interview left them under-whelmed, and who turned out to be a drain on resources. Once you’ve made this mistake, you become way more careful in the appointments you make. The same risk is there when appointing someone to lead your board. Do not settle.


What if you don’t have a good candidate to invite to be chair? Then keep going for informal coffee meetings with your most generous and well-connected donors, trustees etc until you find the right candidates. If your first 5 meetings don’t yield the right person, keep going. Time spent here will pay you back massively, so hang in there. If you don’t find an excellent chair, I’d advise against volunteer board fundraising anyway.


Sell the need to solve the problem. Then ask for help.


Each person you meet, outline the problem the board will raise funds to solve. Give them faith that your charity can and will make a fabulous difference when the funds are raised, and then ask for their help in finding possible board members. Some people won’t be able to help or suggest names. But sooner or later the right chair will become apparent.


When you’ve found the chair, agree sensible terms of reference which the new board should agree to, so everyone is clear what is expected of them. The optimum form of these is up for debate, but I’d advise 1) To give (though not needed at the start) ; 2) To introduce to suitable contacts 3) To actively participate in the board.


Even with the right chair, volunteer board fundraising is not all plain sailing. This is true of most valuable endeavours. But with the right chair, dramatically greater levels of income become possible.


Do you want to know how to help your team raise more money? Rob will deliver the Major Gift Manager’s Masterclass on 14th November.