Vice presidents for development talk about “managing up” whenever they get together. It’s shorthand for using the president effectively. There is too little discussion about another aspect of “managing up,” namely managing the Board of Trustees, which, in many ways, can be an equally important resource for development. The board is, perhaps, the most underutilized tool in the development toolbox at many institutions.

Most development officers know that it is helpful to have a powerful and engaged board. The need for effective board leadership is one of those pieces of folk-wisdom that gets passed from generation to generation. But, like much of the folk-wisdom of the profession, much of the evidence has been anecdotal rather than quantitative. Wisdom that is based in anecdotes tends to be more memorable than applicable. Such is the case with the wisdom about powerful boards—we tend to know about it, but fail to attend to it.

Bentz Whaley Flessner made a quantitative exploration of board management issues. The firm surveyed 120 of the nation’s top private colleges and universities about their board management practices and compared those practices to their fundraising results. The survey documents strong correlations between board management and fundraising. It drills down to identify those specific board management practices that seem to make the most difference.

The research explores the statistical correlations between the different ways that institutions manage their governing boards and the success—or relative lack of success—they have in fundraising. Some correlations are very strong; others suggest significant probability.

Recruiting Wealth

Trustee generosity stands out very consistently as a fundamental driver of overall institutional fundraising productivity. If the board gives significantly, the institution tends to do better in fundraising. The two overarching conclusions are:

  • Recruiting a board that is capable of giving is necessary. But, wealth is not sufficient.
  • Identifying and paying attention to the conditions most likely to inspire generosity among trustees is also essential.

The study focuses on these latter conditions and factors.

The correlations illustrated clearly that, of those institutions that raise less than $5 million in an average year, only 15% have a board that gives more than 20% of the total gift receipts. Conversely, 47% of those institutions that raise more than $20 million in an average year receive more than 20% of their support from the members of the governing board. There is a clear linear statistical correlation between trustee generosity and fundraising productivity. (See Chart 1.) It is quite clear—board generosity is a rising tide that tends to float the entire ship.

Recruiting a capable board is half the battle. Significant giving from a board requires recruiting trustees with the capacity to give significantly. Development is the art of enhancing the propensity of prospects to make a gift. It is rarely able to do much about the prospect’s capacity to make a gift. Whatever we do to manage the board’s involvement and generosity operates under the essential limits of the members’ capacity to give. Trends in successful capital campaigns suggest that recruiting wealth to a board can transform a campaign’s chances to succeed. This study clearly documents institutions that enjoy board generosity (and raise more money) also emphasize wealth in the trustee recruitment process.

None of those institutions with the most generous boards ignore wealth or even consider it a secondary factor. (See Chart 2.) This is not to say that any institution considers wealth to be the ONLY qualifying factor. Many of the more productive and generous boards also look at factors such as diversity, skill sets, general fit with the institution and with the board. But, they may look for these other factors not as alternative factors to wealth but as a supplemental factor.

Great Expectations

While wealth is a necessary factor, it alone is not sufficient. Maximizing board participation and generosity also require that we create a culture of serious philanthropy at the board level. This starts with clear expectations for giving. The relationship between expectation and giving is elegantly simple: institutions whose boards set no formal expectations about giving for their trustees receive less than five percent of their support from board members. (See Chart 3.) Conversely, boards that set clear expectations for member giving—expectations that are individualized—routinely receive a greater portion of their support from the board.

Those statistical correlations are compelling. But, there is a great deal of difference between methods of managing how the support-message or the expectation is communicated. Methods range from setting a uniform minimal annual gift level to general “jawboning” about giving, or to individually-tailored annual requests that suggest to each trustee what his or her colleagues consider to be the “right” gift from each person. Methods matter. But, what matters most is that the board have some method of communicating the expectation about board giving and board leadership giving.

The importance of this relationship between expectation and performance is magnified by several corollary trends: those institutions that make their expectations about member giving explicit during the recruitment process benefit. It is not easy to change the expectations of board members once those expectations have been formed. The key to success is to be present and to be influential while the expectations are being shaped. Trustees that join the board without understanding their responsibilities to give are often harder to convert to enthusiastic donors. (See Chart 4.)

Trustee recruitment is critically important—find the right trustees, don’t simply fill seats. Find those trustees who will satisfy not only the board’s need for talent, skills and representation but, at the same time, its need for wealth. When you find those trustee candidates, tell them fully what membership will entail and what the expectations will be for them to provide support and lead others to do so. But, reinforce what you tell them during recruitment—don’t let the invitation be the last time they hear about philanthropy and their role in it.

Those institutions that offer a formal orientation to trusteeship benefit enormously. (See Chart 7.) The orientation should emphasize philanthropy and individual responsibility. And, the orientation should be more than a single session information-dump. Orientation and trustee learning is a term-long process.

Further, those institutions that enable their boards with detailed information about how the board is participating and giving tend to experience more trustee generosity. There are many ways for the board to monitor its success and its generosity, but all require that staff share information with them. Those institutions that raise the most money tend to inform the board regularly about both the participation rates of its members and the total amount that has come from its members. Sharing only one statistic is less effective. The founder of a very successful Midwestern convenience store chain once said, “You can only expect what you inspect.” In addition, those institutions that position a member of the board—rather than the president or vice president—in the role of reporting on and leading board giving do much better.

The role that the board plays in soliciting support from others also influences both their own generosity and the effectiveness of fundraising in general. Boards that understand their role in fundraising—their role is soliciting and influencing gifts from others—both raise more money and give more money themselves. Higher expectations generate higher return. But both better giving and better fundraising track with better and clearer expectations for giving and getting.

Finally, those institutions that mount a specific annual campaign for the members of the governing board—a campaign with a goal, a time line, a case, and a volunteer structure—benefit significantly. (See Chart 8.)

Success in involving trustees in the fundraising enterprise is also significantly influenced by setting clear expectations for their work. (See Chart 6.) In fact, the highest correlation with success is enjoyed by those institutions that actually appoint trustees to fundraising tasks—others allow trustees to volunteer or have no formal expectations at all.


Managing the board for fundraising is not a complex issue, but it is also not a casual matter. An institution’s approach to identifying candidates, to recruiting trustees, to setting expectations, to orienting new trustees, to providing ongoing education, to reporting on board performance and to engaging trustees in the philanthropy enterprise all affect performance—not only the performance of the board, but the performance of the institution.

The research leads clearly and convincingly to several important conclusions and practical suggestions about board management. The first is: MANAGE YOUR BOARD. The board is a critical factor in successful fundraising and it must be viewed as such and managed for the results you hope to achieve. (Those institutions that view board membership as their highest and best opportunity for leadership gift cultivation experience the highest level of success.) Specific management practices are important:

  • Trustees influence fundraising through both giving and soliciting.
    • When trustees give more generously, all fundraising benefits.
    • When they give more generously, they also do better as fund-raisers.
  • Wealthy trustees lead their institutions to higher fundraising success.
  • Managing “expectations” of the board both for personal giving and for fundraising is critical.
    • Be explicit in the “job description” and in recruitment meetings.
    • Be explicit and emphatic in the orientation.
    • Be persistent in board meeting agendas.
    • Provide skill development and support.
    • Establish an articulate feedback loop.
    • Keep trustees involved in feedback—make it a matter of “self-consciousness.”
  • Ask for their gifts.
  • Involve trustees in the ask.
    • Involve the president.
    • Manage the process from the development office.
  • Make roles and assignments a matter of “appointment/invitation” rather than laissez faire.
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