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The Role of Effective Board Leadership in Successful Fundraising

Governors of independent schools today have many roles to play.  The board’s most important role, although one that will hopefully only be called upon infrequently, is to hire the Head.  On an ongoing basis, boards of governors need expertise in areas such as Health & Safety and Finance & Audit, and these are usually handled by the relevant committees.  An effective board should also have a permanent Nominating Committee to monitor the skillsets of current board members, to identify areas where skills are needed, and then to find, through whatever networks are available, individuals who are willing and able to fill those roles.

One area that will become increasingly important in the future is Development.  Governors are, by definition, those members of the wider community who are closest to the school. They are, in every sense of the word, brand ambassadors for the school, and the example they set is critical.  As part of its search process, the Nominating Committee will clearly communicate to potential board members the responsibilities of membership.  At the same time, the Committee should be explicit in outlining and setting expectations of members.  According to the 2016 Schools’ Alumni Relations and Fundraising Benchmarking Survey conducted by Graham-Pelton, only about 58% of board members support their school financially.  One of the hallmarks of an effective board is that all members make an annual contribution to the school. While the actual amount will vary from member to member depending on individual circumstances, the gift should be meaningful.  It is also reasonable to expect that members will make the school one of their top philanthropic priorities as long as they are on the board.  Why is this important?  Because if a school is trying to raise money from the outside community, it is reasonable for a potential donor to ask: “Do you have support for this effort from all of your governors”?  After all, if those closest to the school do not support it, why should someone else?

A second area of inquiry for the Nominating Committee is whether potential governors are willing to become involved in some aspect of fundraising.  As outlined in Leveraging the Development Office, governors can be particularly effective fundraisers.  A frank discussion of expectations in this area should be part of the recruitment process so that new governors have a clear sense not only of what is expected financially, but also what they are expected to do to assist the Development Office in achieving its goals.  A governor who is not comfortable asking for money can still contribute significantly to the cultivation and stewardship of donors.  On the other hand, a governor who is willing to be part of the “ask” can be a very powerful addition to the team.  Imagine the following scenario. The Head and the governor are meeting with a potential donor who has been identified as having both substantial capacity and a strong affinity for the school.  The Head talks passionately about all the great things that are happening at the school and the vision the Head has for the future. At that point, the governor joins in with, “I am really excited about what the Head has just described. Will you join me [and all the other board members] in supporting this important work with a gift of X?”

Two things should be noted here. First, the Head did not make the ask.  Some Heads may not be comfortable with that step, but all Heads should be able to speak with passion and conviction about what the proposed project will achieve.  Second, the governor is asking the donor to “join” the effort.  The donor is not being asked to do something alone. Others are already committed, which makes the likelihood of a successful outcome substantially higher.

When they joined the board, current board members may not have had any discussions about expectations with whomever recruited them, and thus may feel uncomfortable that the rules have been changed.  However, if a board wants to be truly effective, new board members should not be under any such illusions.  Successful fundraising takes time, patience, and effort from many players.  Board chairs should not worry that this kind of change does not happen overnight.  Given time, effective leadership by board members can have a significant impact on fundraising success.

Charles Platt is a member of Graham-Pelton’s Senior Counsel, partnering with the firm’s clients in the UK and Europe to provide strategic fundraising advice and support to School leaders. Contact him by email or by calling +44 (0) 207 060 2622.