Now isn't the time to step back from asking people to step up, according to Reynold Levy, president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. As the economy increases demand for nonprofit services, it's time to do more and to do it better.
Levy made his comments at the Stepping Up Matters Conference.
Realize how important you are, he told his audience of nonprofit executives, Board members, and funders: embrace your mission, then sell it.
But first, lay the groundwork:
- Govern well
- Build an effective fund-raising team
- Know how to ask
"Sound governance of nonprofit institutions is essential to addressing the current maladies that challenge and even afflict nonprofits," Levy said. "Hearty board recruitment, orientation, policy and decision-making matter a great deal to the success of any nonprofit."
Trustees, he said, are responsible for the financial health of the organization; they are "the guardians at the gate." Anyone who wants to take imprudent risks or who allows the organization to stray from its mission shouldn't be on the board of a nonprofit, he said.
A nonprofit organization exists for the service of others, he added, not for the benefit of its board members or staff. "Keep the organization externally focused," Levy warned. "It must be shaped to serve customers and clients ... The death knell of a nonprofit is to be caught up in its own procedures .. at the expense of the clients, students, patients .. who are the reasons-for-being of a nonprofit."
For a board to fulfill its responsibilities, it must:
1. Meet regularly in full, and in committees, to review and measure programs and monetary performance against clear goals.
2. Have a strong committee structure with, at a minimum, the following committees:
- External Affairs
- Ad hoc task forces as needed to seize opportunities or address challenges.
3. Assess the performance of the organization and the chief executive officer annually. One of the board's major responsibility is to hire and set compensation for the CEO, evaluate him/her and, if necessary, demand the resignation of a CEO who doesn't measure up.
4. Board members must monitor themselves regularly through an annual assessment by the Executive Committee or the Governance Committee.
5. The board chair and the CEO must provide critical information in a timely fashion.
If a board does not meet these criteria, governance will be "feeble and failing," Levy said.
Build an effective fund-raising team
A passionate board and a chief executive officer who accepts the role of fundraiser-in-chief are key to building a reliable income from donors, according to Levy. The CEO must view the board as a partner in strengthening the institution and as a central player in developing a sustained income stream from donations.
The CEO must be comfortable asking for funds, from both board members and donors, Levy stressed. A dedicated board chair and development committee cannot succeed without the CEO as a fund-raising partner.
To develop the fund-raising skills of your board, he offered three suggestions:
- Increase the number of board members.
- Engage board members in the work of the organization: get them excited about the cause and the program.
- Ask for more: more time, talent and treasure, more giving and more "getting."
Levy added some aphorisms to guide fund-raisers, whether board members or CEOs:
- A successful fund-raiser understands that there is never a bad season of the year, time of day or economic climate for soliciting donations for a worthy cause.
- Everyone is a potential donor.
- Giving is a gift to the giver. People feel good about making a difference.
- Tell donors specifically how their gift will make a difference. Make them see that it matters.
Know How to Ask
It's easy for people to be generous in good times, Levy said. The better goal is to build lasting relationships that weather any storm. Central to building such a relationship -- whether with board members or donors -- is engaging their passions. Learn about their interests, their personal history, their family. "Philanthropy is biography," Levy said. "Getting to 'yes' is solving the mystery of what moves your trustee [or other donor] to do something special for a cause."
Part of that "biography" of philanthropy is finding out who the donor respects. "Donors give to people they admire, not to causes or organizations," he said. "The most powerful words are 'Please join me.' "
With an engaged trustee, the process of fund-raising is summed up by Levy as:
"Arrange for an already committed social or professional peer to accompany you in asking, unhesitatingly and confidently, for a specific sum from a well-qualified prospect who respects the solicitor."
Then, he cautioned, wait for an answer. Do not step into the silence that follows.
No antibody exists, he said, "that can keep a potential donor immune from a compelling idea, wrapped in a well-formulated proposal." Nor is there an antibody that can "keep a donor far away from an attractive, well-designed, well-executed special event."
Contributions are, as the title of his books says, "yours for the asking."
For the summary of Bob Edgar's keynote presentation, The Leaders We've Been Waiting For, click here.