In Search of Leadership: The Development Committee Dilemma

In Search of Leadership: The Development Committee Dilemma

Chapter Leadership Brief 12.16.2022

By David McGoy, CFRE
Founder and President, ASSIST Development Consulting
Director of Governance and Board Placement, Robin Hood Foundation

Over the past year I’ve had discussions with CEOs, Development Officers, and board members representing 75 nonprofit organizations and provided training for over 300 more, and it’s hardly a spoiler alert to say that fundraising continues to be a major pain point for boards.

You’ve heard it all before: Resistance to and confusion about fundraising is rampant. There is a lack of clarity, and in some cases a lack of transparency, around fundraising expectations. In many cases board members are well intentioned but are not sure exactly what to do. Discomfort with asking is common, as board members grapple with their own awkward relationships with money, fear of rejection, and a perception that soliciting donations poses a risk to relationships that they value. There are even board members who don’t believe that fundraising is their responsibility.

This underperformance in fundraising is a source of frustration that is voiced at development department in every corner of the nonprofit sector. “I wish they would…” or “Why don’t they…” or “where can we find board members with giving capacity and strong networks, and a willingness to solicit?” But this latter wish for a rainmaker is a kind of fool’s gold. Having a deep-pocketed development committee chair only treats the symptoms and not the root cause. The real problem is a lack of professional fundraising knowledge, skill, and experience in this critical leadership role.

It is almost unthinkable for an established nonprofit to have a Finance Committee Chair who lacks subject matter expertise. Governance Committees are typically run by people with prior board experience or a legal background.  And yet, when we look at the Development Committee Chair, what we often find is a well-intentioned, possibly deep-pocketed, individual who sadly is out of their depth because they don’t have the training, education, or real-world experience that they need to do it capably.

And this is where we come in.

Fundraising management – raising money through the efforts of other people – is absolutely a part of our job description, but we know the limits of managing up all-too-well. What is needed is people with our expertise leading the Development Committee, which would create a dynamic where the board can recognize fundraising expertise in one of their peers. In this way, they would be more likely to follow their leadership in the same way that they trust the CPA who runs the Finance Committee or the lawyer who’s in charge of the Governance Committee. 

This would be a game changer for many boards that are struggling with fundraising. But it’s not without its own roadblocks. For starters, development professionals don’t necessarily have the deepest pockets or the monied networks that CEOs crave. But in this age of equity and inclusion, this matters less, or at least it should. One encouraging that I’ve witnessed recently is that more and more boards are moving away from the “one size fits all” give/get fundraising policy to one that also places value on skill sets, lived experience, and voices that have been missing from the table for too long. Maybe there is a place for fundraising professionals in this new model.

A bigger part of the challenge, I think, is that after 40 hours per week of developing and implementing strategy, chasing down gifts, and nudging a team of solicitors, precious few of us are willing to dedicate our free time to doing the same. I’ve heard much the same from lawyers who are reluctant to join nonprofit boards for fear of becoming pro-bono, in-house counsel. 

So what is the solution? Whatever it is, it has to involve us. We’re the ones with the knowledge and skill that boards are lacking. So whether it’s a chapter-wide effort to encourage development professionals to join boards, a sweeping fundraising training and coaching initiative for Development Committee Chairs, both, or something else entirely, we need to be creative and vigilant in addressing this critical leadership gap in nonprofit governance. And soon.

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