Cultivate Heavy Lifters for Your Board

Your board can be a robust fundraising engine, but not if it’s cluttered with board members who are light lifters. And, let’s face it, most nonprofits have boards that do very little.

It’s better to have even a few people on your board who are willing to put in the time to guide your organization to its greatest impact.

I’ve seen organizations transformed by three or four such people, and it’s much more advantageous to recruit this type of board member.

The question, of course, is how do you cultivate the heavy lifters to ensure that you’re giving them the runway and encouragement they need to become indispensable?

We explored this question in depth during a special LAPA Fundraising webinar. Watch here!

In the meantime, let’s examine the difference between light lifters and heavy lifters — and how the latter can transform your organization.

The Anatomy of Light Lifters 

The light lifter is the person who comes to one meeting a year and doesn’t return your phone calls! Light lifters promise to do something, but you never hear from them. Sound familiar?

Talking to many such individuals over the years, I’ve learned that they think alike. They believe their chief contribution to your nonprofit is enabling you to associate their name with your organization. “I’m vice president of XYZ Bank. I’m on your board. Isn’t that enough?” 

They don’t solicit their personal contacts. They don’t roll up their sleeves for analysis. Many don’t even include your agency in their own giving. 

Ironically, light-lifting board members tend to stick around for a long time. This creates a tremendous disadvantage for your organization. 

The Heavy-Lifting Board 

Heavy lifters are engaged. 

They are fully invested in the life and growth of your nonprofit regardless of its development stage. They readily apply their skills, talents, connections, and wealth to the pursuit of your mission. 

A heavy-lifting board grapples with visionary questions like: “How do we define success?” “What do we want to be remembered for?” “What will our work accomplish, and how should we prepare for it?” 

The most compelling studies of board satisfaction document that the happiest trustees are engaged with planning for the organization’s growth and success. That’s what they truly want! 

I want to emphasize, though, that heavy lifting is more than fulfilling a task and being alert. When I look back at the boards I’ve worked with either as a fundraiser or an executive director — boards that spurred the organization forward — I can identify one essential characteristic of the individuals who did the heavy lifting.

In different ways and for various reasons, they were all indispensable. 

How Can You Tell? 

The indispensable board member usually can see where the organization must go, even if the odds of arriving there appear insurmountable. 

I fondly recall one board member with an accounting background who reviewed our nonprofit’s $650,000 annual budget. 

“You need revenue for general operating expenses,” he told me. “You should apply for government grants that have an overhead cost built in and raise unrestricted private support. That way, you can underwrite the real costs of doing business.” 

Following his advice, I was able to secure funds for space, equipment, and administrative staff not tied to specific programs. I did it by talking about our work and where we were headed, not by asking for support for a new copier. 

That board member provided vision and helped move the agency to a higher fiscal level. Three years later, we were at a $4.1 million annual budget, and 18% of those funds were unrestricted. That’s engagement. 

Another board member insisted that we understand our competition. He led the way by investigating other nonprofits in our field and reporting back to me what he learned. I asked him to present the analysis to the whole board, an event that turned out to be a pivotal moment in understanding our service niche and revenue approach. 

These trustees profoundly helped our organization reach a higher level. They were indispensable for different reasons, but because of their actions, our board meetings became interesting. We even became imbued with a sense of doing something indispensable for the homeless people we served. 

We also raised more revenue as a result.

Clean Them Out 

When you reflect on who’s sitting on your board, and why, you are positioning yourself for institutional advancement and raising more revenue. 

I’m one of the few fundraisers who don’t expect or require a board to lead in fundraising. But the board must lead in something. Otherwise, the organization — and its fundraising — will suffer.

Examine your board’s core strength. If that strength is not fundraising, it could be in long-term planning, networking, or event planning. That’s for the members to decide (and for you to recruit to) per their skills and aptitude. 

For a fundraising program to evolve and advance, the board needs to know its core strength, the indomitable strength from which it draws its energy. 

Who are the heavy lifters on your board, and what are you doing to support them? Which trustees have run their course? What are your answers? 

Always remember that boards are about heavy lifting. Lightweights need not apply.

Please share this post with a colleague who may benefit from it. 

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