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Kay Sprinkel Grace

The Right Questions to Ask A Potential Board Member

Recently, fundraising maven Kay Sprinkel Grace wrote a post on the GuideStar blog outlining four questions to ask prospective board members when interviewing them for board positions. While I heartily agree with her that nonprofit leaders should institute and follow a rigorous due diligence process in recruiting new board members (rather than just shoving anyone into an empty board seat), I disagree with most of the interview questions she proposes.

In my mind, Sprinkel Grace’s questions for prospective board members focus too much on what’s in it for the potential board member, rather than what value the board member could bring the nonprofit. And in this way, nonprofit leaders are again encouraged to present themselves on bended knee to those from whom they need support or help. I would much rather see nonprofit leaders interview board candidates by confidently asserting the value that their nonprofit creates and determining whether potential board members have something of value that could further that work.

Sprinkel Grace’s first question for prospective board members — “How passionate are you about our cause?”– is absolutely right and helpful in determining whether a prospective member has the requisite amount of interest in the cause they might be helping to lead. But her other three questions (“What personal aspirations of yours could be enhanced by serving on our board?”, “Of what importance to you is social interaction with other board members?,” and “How much time can you give us?”) all put the burden on the nonprofit leader to demonstrate the value a board position will bring to the prospective board member, rather than helping to discern whether the prospective board member will bring value to the nonprofit. For the most part, Sprinkel Grace’s questions are about what the nonprofit can do for the board member, not the other way around.

Instead nonprofit leaders should use questions like these to determine whether or not a prospective board member is a fit for the nonprofit:

In reading through our nonprofit’s strategic plan (or whatever background documents we gave you ahead of time) what things excite you?
This question provides an opportunity for you to judge 1) whether this board member demonstrates enough of an interest in the organization to have done their homework, and 2) whether your work elicits enough intellectual and/or emotional energy from them to fuel their future work on your behalf.

What specific skills, experience or networks do you think you could bring to the table in order to help us move forward on our goals? 
This question makes very clear that you expect something unique and specific from this prospective board member (just as you do with all of your board members), not just a warm body. But more importantly, this question helps you gauge how well this board member understands your work and your plans and how willing they are to get in the game. This question can also help to get the right board member really excited about how their unique contribution right from the start.

How do you think you might go about meeting our give/get requirement?
I know it’s controversial (and I’ve talked about it manymany times before), but I strongly believe that you have to connect every single board member to the financial engine of your nonprofit. If you have a specific give/get requirement for your board (and I hope you do!), then you want to know from the outset how this prospective board member feels about it, and how they might approach it.

If we are going to create strong, effective, sustainable nonprofit organizations, we have to stop begging board members to join. A great board is created when you recruit people who have the specific skills, experience and networks you need to deliver on your mission and you effectively engage them to do the work.

If you want to learn more about creating an effective, engaged board, download the “10 Traits of a Groundbreaking Board” book.

Photo Credit: Ethan

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Why Do People Give?

There is a great discussion going on at the Tactical Philanthropy blog centered around the new book The Art of Giving: Where the Soul Meets a Business Plan by Charles Bronfman and Jeffrey Solomon who argue that philanthropists (big and small) should take a more strategic approach to giving.  The discussion that has followed the three posts so far gives fascinating insight into the reasons that people give.  Katya Andresen at Network for Good, nicely summarizes the two broad reasons that people give: 1) for personal return on investment (recognition, feels good, status, increase in network) and 2) social return in investment (make a difference, create impact, solve a problem, etc).

For me, there are three takeaways from this discussion.  First, anyone who raises money in the nonprofit sector should read the posts and the comments.  They provide fascinating insight into the various motivations for giving to nonprofits.  A reading of the discussion gets a nonprofit fundraiser out of the mentality of raising money around their organization’s needs and into the more lucrative mindset of what is compelling to potential donors.

Second, I think that there is an increasing focus by philanthropists on the second motivation (social ROI), as opposed to a past focus on individual ROI.   Because of the past philanthropic focus on individual gain, the resulting nonprofit fundraising activities have centered on activities that provided donors an individual ROI, for example capital campaigns that promise a new building with a donor’s name emblazoned on it, or events that provide networking and exclusive activities, or “thank you” gifts.  As social ROI becomes more of an interest to philanthropists, smart nonprofits will focus on creating their logic models and demonstrating impact.  And when they do this, I would argue that they will actually be more successful at raising money (see Kay Sprinkel Grace’s Beyond Fundraising).

Finally, we will never get to a place where all individual giving is social ROI focused. As the authors of the new book point out, philanthropy is very much an individual sport that is focused on the individual’s values and what they want to accomplish (whether that be personal or societal gain, or a combination of both):

When you give, you get, and we believe you need to focus on what it is that you are getting for what you give. We argue that what you get in philanthropy is nourishment for that portion of the body that is so sacred it cannot be found in any book of anatomy: the soul, where all that is best in us resides. It is simultaneously the innermost self and the one so external it seems somehow eternal—which makes it the natural connection point for our philanthropy, for we give to improve the world in a lasting way and to leave it with our stamp.

Which then begs the question, will we ever get to a place where social problems are solved through capital raised from individual philanthropists?  Charitable contributions to the nonprofit sector make up 12% of the sector’s money.  Roughly 80% of that comes from individuals. Government money has been declining and so nonprofits have increasingly focused on dollars from individuals to make up the difference.  If individual philanthropy will always have an individual return motivation, is that ultimately a problem for a sector that is trying to provide social goods?

I don’t know, but the discussion and questions that these authors have raised will no doubt help propel philanthropy forward.

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Friday, November 6th, 2009 Fundraising, Nonprofits, Philanthropy 11 Comments


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