Adopting a board giving policy has become fairly commonplace in our country’s nonprofit sector. Board giving policies provide clarity about the board’s anticipated role as individual donors, as well as the organization’s expectations in terms of fundraising participation. This practice has been beneficial in helping board members to embrace their role as leaders of fundraising for the nonprofits they represent.
There are three common structures for Board giving policies:
- Board members are explicitly required to give a minimum gift of a specific dollar amount (i.e., all board members will give at least $5,000).
- Board members are required to give a gift that is among their top three gifts to charities this year (i.e., the board member’s gift to this nonprofit should be among the three largest their family makes this year).
- Board members are required to give a gift that is “personally significant to them” (i.e., all board members should make a gift that feels important and meaningful within the context of their own giving capacity).
The Boardsource study Leading with Intent 2017 tells us that 69 percent of all public charities require a board member to make an annual contribution to their organization, and 70 percent now make it a practice to clearly discuss fundraising expectations during the board recruiting process. But Leading with Intent also tells us that boards are no more diverse in terms of age, race, gender, and economic status than they were two years ago, despite a stated preference for greater diversity.
Could the way we structure our board giving policies be partially to blame?
When we, as a sector, began emphasizing board giving policies, we were aiming to resolve confusion around expectations that were causing tension within organizations. Policies do help to routinize board member giving and publicly demonstrate the board’s commitment to supporting their nonprofit’s work. But as we work to make our boards more diverse, it may be that strict giving policies requiring a minimum gift are resulting in unintended consequences — boards populated only by people who can easily reach certain levels of giving.
When we expect all of our board members to give a stated minimum gift, we are saying quite clearly that people who can’t make that financial commitment are not welcome on the board. Isn’t this one of the roadblocks that keep our boards looking (and governing) the same over time? It eliminates participation by people who can’t make a gift at that level, which also keeps them from making other valuable contributions to our governance.
How can we be truly equitable if people must meet a disposable income test to be part of our governance? This is a particularly important question for organizations that are striving to serve people with fewer resources. What does it say about us if we have a board of mostly wealthy people making decisions about the services that people with greater economic challenges should receive?
And even if your core mission is not to serve people with less wealth, don’t most nonprofit missions focus on improving our communities overall? Environmental advocacy groups are designed to benefit everyone with a healthier planet. Arts organizations are designed to lift up creativity and expression throughout our communities. Shouldn’t a truly equitable nonprofit include the voices of many different kinds of people at the highest levels of governance, even if it means that board contribution levels may vary?
My opinion on this issue is heavily influenced by my experience as managing director of a community arts organization 20 years ago. Our Chicago neighborhood was economically diverse — people with great wealth living in condos along Lake Michigan, side by side with people living in single room occupancy apartment buildings and recently-arrived immigrants who (at one count) spoke 32 different languages. We knew that if our young arts organization was going to succeed at bringing this diverse community together, we would need diverse leadership.
We built a board that represented all of the facets of our neighborhood, and set a straightforward giving policy: everyone has to make a gift that is personally significant to them. I had board members who wrote me $10,000 checks (and thank goodness, because we needed the money!). And I had board members who periodically approached me and gave me a crumpled dollar bill from their pocket. And it’s the latter gift that is more humbling to receive — a true demonstration of what “personally significant” means.
From this experience, I learned two things:
- Everyone can give, and every gift matters.
- Letting board members define their own gift makes it more likely that people from diverse economic situations will be able to participate – and this wider participation makes a difference in how a nonprofit serves its community.
If you’re worried that having a giving policy that does not have a stated gift requirement will reduce board giving, let me ask this:
- If board members are only giving at a certain level because you require it, what does that say about their passion for the organization? If they can afford it, isn’t a gift at that level (or even higher) personally significant for them?
- Do you still need to have some financially well-resourced people on the board? Of course! But does every single board seat need to be determined by giving capacity? Probably not.
While I am realist about how hard it is to raise money, I am also a realist about what it will take to build nonprofit governance structures that are effective and ethical for our 21st-century world. Philosophically, nonprofits are owned by all of us in the community — including all of the people we serve. If we don’t build a board giving policy that embraces this, we are handing the future of the nonprofit sector entirely to people with a great amount of wealth. Those people are part of our governance — but they shouldn’t be the only voices in the room.
I stand behind the idea that every board member should make a personal financial gift to their organization — but also believe that these gifts do not have to meet a certain dollar amount in order to demonstrate leadership.
Ideally, our board giving policies can help to create equity and diversity within our organizations, which is certainly a path to a more just and inclusive nonprofit sector.
Allison Trimarco is the founder and principal of Creative Capacity (www.creativecapacity.net), a consulting firm that collaborates with nonprofits to find creative solutions to management challenges. She is also affiliated with The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business (www.lasallenonprofitcenter.org).