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How’s Your Oxygen Level?

Oxygen: a colorless and odorless gas that people need to breathe.

For nonprofits, this essential element comes in the form of engaged individuals.

Without a base of truly passionate and committed individual supporters, no nonprofit organization will ever be fully sustainable.

I believe that nonprofits exist at the behest of the community. That 501c3 tax exempt status is not a right, it’s a privilege. Way back when each nonprofit got started, someone said: we need that service in our community so much that we as individuals are going to pay more taxes so that organizations providing those vital services don’t have to pay taxes.

As soon as a nonprofit organization forgets that fact and stops focusing intentionally on engaging the individuals in their community at whose behest they serve, they have moved off the path of long-term sustainability.

It’s not about the money. It’s about the engagement of those individuals in the real work of the organization.

It’s about having a steady stream of individuals who could genuinely move you to tears in two minutes with an authentic, compelling story or personal experience of why your work is needed.

Like the community organizer at one of our advocacy organizations who knew just the three questions to ask me to take me back to a time in my own life when I had witnessed or experienced injustice and had failed to take action.

It’s about the authentic, continually “refreshed” engagement of individuals who breathe so much life into your organization that, even if they never personally need your services, they are passionate about that need being met in the community.

It’s about being able to leave your organization knowing that dedicated people are looking after it wisely, growing it appropriately, and above all, holding the organization true to its main purpose: fulfilling its overarching mission.

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Multiple-Year Giving Society Board Buy-In

Inviting Guests to the Point of Entry

Q: How am I going to convince my board that asking is okay at these Multiple-Year Giving Society pledge levels?

Katherine in California

A: As veterans of many fundraising events, most board members presume their guests will be pressured to give at the Ask Event. They presume this event will be the first time a guest learns about your organization and therefore they rightly fear that asking for these “large amounts” will be off-putting.

Once your board members understand that all the Table Captains at the Ask Event will have served as Ambassadors, hosting and filling their own private Point of Entry Event with ten or more guests, and that these prior Point of Entry guests will be the same people they invite to sit at their tables at your Free One-Hour Ask Event, they will begin to see how different this event is.

We recommend you let these skeptical board members observe and enjoy your first Ask Event, and they will come along at their own pace.

If you focus on having privately hosted Points of Entry, you will naturally meet our metric for having 10% of your Ask Event guests give at one of the three larger multi-year levels. The fourth box on the pledge card lets donors fill in the blanks for their own gift level. We only expect 40 to 50% of Ask Event guests to make any gift at all at the event.

For those board members who do not want to participate in the process, invite them to the Ask Event, seat them with other board members or friends and let them be a part of the whole experience. Do not ask them to be Table Captains.

If your event follows the Benevon Model, your board members will be so proud of your organization, they will likely become supporters of this process and volunteer to serve as Ambassadors over the next year.

Remember our golden rule about treating board members as if they are your most cherished major donors. You would never force your most cherished major donors to do anything. Let them determine their own preferred form of participation.

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Board Members Reignited

Having served on my share of lackluster nonprofit boards over the last forty years (note that I said lackluster boards, not lackluster people or lackluster nonprofit organizations), having been part of many new trends in board development, and having read most of the good literature that is out there on boards, I guess I’m a little old-fashioned in coming back to the simple approach for getting boards to work: keep every member connected to their particular passion for the mission, have the board align on a big common goal, and give them a step-by-step pathway—and a coach—to ensure their success in attaining that goal.

In other words, reconnect them to their passion for your work and then involve them in designing and implementing a plan to attain long-term financial sustainability for the organization.

We believe this is the greatest contribution a board member can make.

At every one of our two-day workshops that I have the privilege of attending, I meet with the board members and volunteers (without their staff members present) for an optional chat at the end of the lunch break on the second day. Remarkably, although they have been working nonstop on this for nearly 20 hours and they know this meeting is optional, they all attend.

They come for two reasons: to meet other like-minded board members and volunteers and to ask the same question we all ask: “how can we get more board members to be thinking this way?”

Even within their own organizations, they are the pioneers. Many are longstanding board members; some are former board chairmen, now officially off the board, but more engaged than ever. Some are new to the board, love the mission, and excited about the opportunity to leave a legacy.

That seems to be the common theme at these meetings—these board members are not complaining in the least. They are turned on and engaged! They say this is the most exciting thing that’s happened in years at their organization.

What has happened to light them up like this? Two things.

First, we have them each share with their teams the answer to these questions: “Why do I volunteer with this organization? What is it about the work of this group that is so important to me personally?” That simple exercise—it takes about ten minutes altogether—is enough to reignite that unique strain of passion in each team member and bond them together and focus them powerfully on a common objective.

Which leads to the second thing: we have them define and then quantify what sustainable funding would look like for their organization. Most of these board members and volunteers are masters of the fundraising “treadmill.” Their arms are muscle-bound from so much strong-arming of friends to give money to their favorite cause.

The thought that they could actually help their organization get off that treadmill once and for all is so freeing for them. When they see that plan on paper—spreadsheets, numbers, formulas—and that it all hangs together in a logical way, they step right into action.

That passion, combined with a clear objective and a plan for fulfilling on it, turns the drudgery of board work back into pleasurable, satisfying work. In the face of all the work they have ahead of them, we don’t hear people complaining. On the contrary, these board members and volunteers leave our workshops on fire, hugging us, thanking us for returning them to their passion and helping them craft a plan. Many tell us that it’s all they ever wanted—to be able to leave that legacy.

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Junior Boards

What Size Tables for the Ask Event?

Q: Our small non-profit is considering creating a junior board or young professionals group. Does Benevon have an opinion on if there is a threshold for when the timing is right to do this? We are a staff of four FTEs and a part-time person.

Kelly in Washington, DC

A: You are wise to consider your existing staff workload before launching such a group. Boards and committees take a lot of time, and starting a new one, even more so. Clarify your intention for this new board. What will you want them to do? How do you see them contributing long-term to the growth and development of your organization? If you are hoping to use this group to groom potential board members, what exactly will you do to engage them? What is your longer-term intention for this group?

Is your organization prepared to dedicate a .5 FTE to staff this new board?

For groups utilizing the Benevon Model, the best role for each member on this new board is to help you get the word out about your organization, by serving as an Ambassador, hosting and filling a private Point of Entry Event once per year. There may be other roles and responsibilities (like serving on a committee or volunteering their time for other things) but asking each member of this new group to become an Ambassador will generate the greatest return on your staff investment.

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Stop Pressuring Your Board Members

Your fresh and eager new recruit arrives at one of her first board meetings. Although she was recruited to fill the “CPA slot,” one of the main agenda items for the meeting is, of course, fundraising. It just happens to be the time of year for the big annual banquet, golf tournament, or fund drive. Before she has even been oriented to the basics of being on the board, the new member is being asked to do the part she dreaded most. Yes, she did know this was coming eventually, and she did agree to help. So she takes a deep breath and scans her address book for her five closest friends or colleagues who cannot refuse her. After all, she has helped them in similar times of need.

Think for a moment about how it feels for her friends to be on the receiving end of one of those Asks. In most cases, those friends cannot say no. Their relationship with your board member, whether professional or personal, would make it very awkward to refuse. In their minds, their contribution is more akin to a business expense.

The times I have been “strong-armed” by my friends on other boards, I have had to say yes. But as soon as my friend goes off that board, I stop giving to that organization. It is not because it was a bad organization. On the contrary, they were almost certainly doing very good work. Had they taken the time to educate and cultivate me personally, I could have become a lifelong supporter in my own right. But in their minds, I was my friend’s contact so they left me alone, not wanting to intrude.

In terms of their love of fundraising, a random sample of board members will pretty much mirror the larger population. In other words, fundraising is just not everyone’s favorite activity. The same folks who may be brilliant at strategic planning, finance, or human resources may not feel they have the knack for fundraising. Remember, you did not initially recruit all of them for their fundraising expertise. That would be akin to asking all board members to be responsible for reviewing the annual audit in detail or securing the next piece of real estate for the organization.

On the other hand, there is a portion of the population that actually likes to ask others for money, especially when they are asking on behalf of an organization they truly believe in. Those are the board members you intentionally recruited to fill the fundraising slots. You put them on the development committee. At the proper point in the fundraising/cultivation cycle, these board members will be of great help in asking for money, but not until potential donors have attended a Point of Entry Event, received a Follow-Up Call, and been cultivated sufficiently to be ready to be asked.

As most of us have learned the hard way, pressuring board members to do fundraising does not work. Even if they say they will make those three calls to ask people for money, many never seem to get around to it. For some, this pressure leads to poor attendance at meetings. Eventually they withdraw or resign from the board feeling guilty, frustrated, or resentful.

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Prospective Board Members

Q: Our organization has been implementing the Benevon Model for several years. What would be your advice on how to best introduce Benevon to prospective board members to get them excited and involved but not to overwhelm them?

Alice in Wisconsin

A: Start by explaining to prospective board members that your goal is the long-term financial sustainability of the organization, getting off the year-to-year fundraising “treadmill.”

Invite each prospective board member to your powerful Point of Entry Event—your “tour of your mission.” When you follow up, explain to them that the Point of Entry they attended is part of a larger fundraising model your organization is using, something to build a stronger connection with donors over time. Explain that the model is mission-focused, and that its purpose is to find passionate individual donors who care about your organization and will stay with you for life.

If one of your prospective board members wants additional information about the Benevon Model, direct them to our fifty-five-minute video, Creating Sustainable Funding for Your Nonprofit.

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Engaging Your Board in the Benevon Process

“I’ll do anything to help you—except fundraising!”

How often have you heard this from a board member? Most board members have been around the block a time or two and they presume “fundraising” refers to what Benevon calls “strong-arming the Rolodex.”

Staff must tell board members, from the outset, that there is no requirement in our model for any board member to ever ask anyone for money.

The permission-based Benevon Model suggests three roles for board members. Each of these roles is entirely optional and honors your board members’ commitment to your mission:

  1. Serve as an Ambassador by hosting a private Point of Entry Event for a group of ten or more friends or colleagues. Once your board members have attended your sizzling Point of Entry Event, they will this powerful one-hour event to educate and inspire people, without ever talking about fundraising. ‌‌

    ‌If your board members did nothing more than host one Point of Entry Event each year, they would have made an enormous contribution to the future of the organization.
  2. Thank your recent happy donors. Give board members a list of individual donors from the prior month to call and thank. Leaving a voicemail message is permissible. It won’t take long for board members to realize the positive impression this call makes on each donor who may never have received any personal communication from the organization, let alone from a board member!

    ‌Again, not all board members will want to do this, but once a few members report on the experience at the next monthly board meeting, others may offer to jump in.
  3. Give money themselves. It will come as no surprise to you or your board that your funders and donors will assume that everyone on the board makes an annual financial contribution. While there is no prescribed amount expected in our model, 100% board giving is a requirement.

    ‌Once you have established your Multiple-Year Giving Society, these will be the same levels you can suggest to your board members, without pressuring them in any way to give at any level.

    ‌The more your board members can experience the permission-based power of the Benevon Model firsthand, the more readily they will introduce others and get more involved themselves. Soon they will be thanking you and saying “this has helped me remember why I got involved with this organization in the first place. It makes me proud to be a board member here.”