August 24, 2020

What if Your Board Loved Making Yearly Cash Gifts?

picture of a beach decorativeYou might believe that asking board members to give a cash gift to the nonprofit they serve is too much. After all, your members do much for you, such as giving time. They promote you. They willingly offer expertise. Asking board members who do so much to provide a cash gift is too much, right?

Unfortunately, this belief hurts your organization. Most nonprofits need the cash. They need donors who will give if the board gives. And giving impacts board decisions. People invest differently when their money is involved.

Let’s look at what’s happening if you don’t ask. You and your board designed a system that benefits you both. You don’t have to ask them for money, feel guilty about it, or risk irritating them. Your board gets to keep their cash.

Your board already has a standard about giving money. To help your nonprofit, make it your goal to replace the existing standard of optional giving with one where every board member makes a yearly cash gift. This article shares several tools that ingenious nonprofit leaders use to create this standard.

Board Giving: It’s Not About The Amount, Its About Joy

By asking your board members to give, you do them a favor. Do you believe this? I mean, really believe it? Behavioral economic research shows that giving gifts to others is one of the few actions that make us happy. Giving gives back. People get more happiness from giving to others than buying bigger homes, new cars, or more stuff. Know that giving people the opportunity to give is not too much. It’s a gift.

Unconvinced by research? Make it personal. Take my Hundred Dollar Challenge. Over the next seven days, give five gifts from your private funds. Give twenty-dollar gifts in five different places. Give where your donation will make a difference. For instance, place a twenty in a street musician’s cup. Send a check to a nonprofit. Insert another twenty into the mailbox of a neighbor experiencing financial difficulties. Buy coffee. Give the barista a twenty to pay it forward. You get the picture. Watch what happens. Notice your happiness.*

It’s counterintuitive but true.

Giving changes lives—for the better—including the giver’s life. Receiving cash gifts from your board begins with this mindset.

Make it Part of the Culture.

Another ingenious method to improve the giving standard of your board involves our herding instincts. The herding instinct is about belonging. We desire to belong, so we adopt others’ behaviors. We constantly compare our behaviors to the herd and seek to match them. The herding instinct is why specific children’s names become popular. It’s why Even if you’ve never thought about it, you use the herding instinct to help your nonprofit.

To create a cash-giving standard, gently and thoughtfully herd your board members to make a yearly cash gift to the board’s behavior. To visualize what this looks like, imagine a shepherd herding sheep with the help of several dogs or helpers. The shepherd gives instructions and begins to move. The helpers work at the edges and gently move (or not—some nip) other sheep in the desired direction. Slowly, the sheep follow.

You Don’t Have to Do This Alone!

Who or what might help you? Find helpers willing to follow you and help get others to the new gift standard. For one, board members who do give. Another helper? Foundations that inquire about board gifts in their applications. With few exceptions, what foundations mean by these questions, is that requests from groups without a cash-giving standard are futile. “Helper” here can also include videos, articles—like this one—and other media.

You don’t have to shout from the top of the hill to be a shepherd. Decide where the board needs to go and guide them. I asked Andy Kramer, Director of Development at Southeastern Guide Dogs, to rank his board on the one to 100 scale in terms of helping to obtain donations. His immediate response was, “100.” Andy explained, “If you aren’t giving and getting –you have to wonder if you’re in the wrong group. Giving is contagious.”

How can you herd? It depends on your starting place. The following section offers several scenarios and recommendations for each.

1. If You Already Have Some Board Members That Give

The path is straightforward. To increase the percentage of givers, design an activity that creates 100 giving with one swoop. For instance, ask a donor (helper) to make a major gift, but only if all the board members provide a gift. Also, make more donation requests one-on-one, i.e., “Audrey, would you be willing to fund $100 to see your new initiative? If yes, we could start it tomorrow.”

People give because they are asked. One-to-one requests make the best asks.

Once you reach the 70 percent participation level, consider using an accountability chart. (This great idea comes from an event I attended years ago and whose leader I can’t recall.) The chart lists board activities, including attending meetings, committee leadership, and the like. Of course, it also lists cash gifts. Every board member receives a copy of the chart—with this significant caveat: don’t name names.

Hand out the chart in sealed envelopes with the members’ personal information highlighted on their sheets. Your sheet gives everyone the information they need to understand what’s happening on the board.

2. If You Have A Scattering of Board Gifts

Your task is more complicated. In truth, if you are a CEO or development director, the board probably does not consider you a member of their herd. Requests from outsiders become ambient noise or worse. Think: blah, blah, blah.

Stop talking at them. Work one on one instead. First, find helpers. Look amongst those who give already. Seek or create board champions who “get” the importance of giving. Don’t overlook the people who resist initially but join later. One new board member grudgingly gave the required $500 donation the first year. In year two, he moved the minimum to $1,000. He persuaded his fellow members to contribute larger and larger gifts until $10,000 became the standard in subsequent years.

3. No Gifts

If you can’t find a champion to promote board giving, your work’s cut out for you. But don’t despair! Find a different herd to join.

One group did this by merging with a group with a giving board. This is extreme!

Less extreme but still effective is claiming your membership in a larger herd of successful nonprofits. Since you probably already talk about “other nonprofits” with wishful sighs, encourage your board to see your organization as about to join this wonderful herd. Bring your board information about how you’re already part of this herd. Also, share ways you need to grow. Will anyone on your board be surprised that all the nonprofits in your big new herd, among other behaviors, have a standard of 100 percent cash gifts? Probably not, but they will like being part of success.

How Can You Start Today?  

As you consistently shepherd your board, one day, some members will announce that you should consider making a yearly cash gift a standard once it becomes “their” idea and your board’s ready to consider a future commitment.

A future commitment involves believing something is desirable and promising to do it in the somewhat hazy future. You know this technique. You use it when you promise your children you’ll go to Disney World—next year.

Early in our marriage, my husband, while agreeable, was somewhat reluctant to become a father. I asked if he thought having children in five years was reasonable. He agreed. Five years and nine months later, our son was born.

In the case of board cash gifts, you might respond to the suggestion of a yearly cash gift standard with little chance of success by stating, “I agree cash gifts would be excellent. What do you think about informing all new board members about the expectation of a yearly cash gift? Given our two-year term limits, we’ll have 100 percent participation in six years or less.”


What might you do when you encounter holdouts? First, what’s a holdout? Someone who won’t play.

A friend refused to give to a federated giving campaign. She held out even when every other faculty member in her school gave. She said no. My friend was a holdout.

Board giving is not a federated giving campaign decreed by someone else. Board members agree to serve. The boards create standards, in this case, yearly cash gifts. Holdouts who won’t give “on principal” aren’t good board members. This may sound harsh. But if you seek to create a culture of philanthropy, it’s logical. Giving is contagious, an honor, and it needs leadership models.

Find ways to tap holdout’s talents, but get them off the board. While you might eventually change their minds, face the facts. You don’t have that kind of time. Give holdout one full term to come around.


Recruiting board members based only on their willingness to give a cash gift would be absurd. However, asking candidates about their attitudes about giving will be informative and valuable in board interviews. Consider discussing their giving beliefs and experiences. Share your goal of 100 percent board participation in a yearly cash gift. Explain how this standard supports the nonprofit’s success and offers meaning to board members.

Set A Giving Standard

You can change a board’s giving standard. A yearly cash gift from every board member is a proven best practice. The benefits your organization receives from these future gifts make your effort to create this new standard worthwhile. Imagine the joy of writing in your future grant applications, “The board contributed over $200,000 during the last fiscal year. Every member gave. The gift range was from $1,500 to $25,000.”

* What would happen if you invited your board to take Karen’s Hundred Dollar Challenge? Or, if you are concerned make about equity issues, make it the twenty-dollar challenge. Give everyone four five-dollar bills in an envelope and challenge them to give it away before your next board meeting.

For more answers, check out this Nonprofit CEO Library.

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Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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