“Bless your heart.” Growing up in Georgia, I know how handy this phrase can be, and just how versatile it is, too. It can express genuine sympathy, gratitude, exasperation … everything you want to say—but can’t—in three short words. When asked about ex-husband Ben Affleck’s back-spanning tattoo of a rising phoenix, Jennifer Garner said, “You know what we would say in my hometown about that? ‘Bless his heart.’”
In my previous life in nonprofit development, this phrase played countless times in my mind as board members offered their “new and exciting” development ideas. “We could have a 50/50 raffle at every performance!” “Did you hear about the guy that just won the lottery? I hear he LOVES theatre. Let’s ask him for a gift!”
Advancement professionals know that board members can be our biggest champions and best connectors. But it is up to us to forge that path. Otherwise, they will look for their own, let’s say “creative” ways to contribute or, even worse, withdraw from volunteer service and start feeling like a human ATM.
This means being intentional about recruitment as well as the time spent with each board member to connect their skillset to the needs of the organization, beyond their financial investment. Advancement Resources often references the saying, “If you want money, ask for advice; if you want advice, ask for money,” In other words, taking the time to truly understand each board member’s unique background, experiences, and their connection to your organization will drive alignment between knowledge and needs, help your organization succeed, and enable board members to see and feel the impact of their efforts.
The good news is, the path to unlocking board member engagement follows many of the same steps as facilitating passion-based philanthropy, including deliberately building trust-based relationships. This requires active listening that involves asking questions and making statements that encourage your board members to share information that helps you understand them. Once you truly understand your board members’ needs and motivations, you can better match them with committees, interests, and projects that will provide a meaningful return on their investment of time.
While serving as Director of Development at a professional theatre company, I recruited an attorney to serve on our board to urgently fill a gap in legal and human resources expertise. He was already a generous annual donor and frequently brought new groups to performances. He was excited and honored by the invitation. So, when his attendance and participation in his first quarter of board meetings was less than lackluster, I knew I had skipped a step.
As it turns out, his first career was not as an attorney, but as an actor! His eyes lit up when I asked about his favorite performances both on stage and as an audience member, and I knew that we had to get him involved with our Artist Engagement Committee. He became the most dedicated airport transport volunteer in the group and artists began requesting him by name for their pickups. As for the legal expertise we still needed, he began to assume leadership without prompting. We had finally found a path for him to move to the right into the ownership column of the Donor Commitment Continuum. He went on to serve as board president and made a significant investment in capital improvements for artist housing.
As the example illustrates, board engagement is an evolutionary process—changing as membership, staff, and organizational priorities shift. But it’s an evolutionary process for your board members, too. The key to evolving together is understanding the why behind the work and how that work creates meaning for both the board member and your organization. Unlocking the passion behind each volunteer’s efforts might just get you to say “bless your heart” and mean it.
Advancement Resources’ new workshop, Transforming Your Organization With Individual Giving, is designed especially for nonprofit organizations who are looking to leverage their relationships with individuals—including board members—to greater philanthropy. Learn the ways in which you can “bless the hearts” of your volunteers, donors, and potential donors.