Transforming a CSO Board into a Golden Pot


Most boards of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Africa fail to live up to their resource mobilisation responsibilities. This is because too many CSOs approach board fundraising assuming they have boards full of movers and shakers who know how to raise funds, even when that is not the case.

Today, more than ever, boards of African CSOs are expected to mobilise significant amounts of resources. This has become essential as development partners are shifting their priorities and in some cases even withdrawing funding support. This is due to global calls for more aid to go to the world’s poorest countries, and with overseas development assistance (ODA) likely to transition from middle income to lower income economies in the coming years, civil society is likely to face a significant shortfall. This situation is also exacerbated by the volatility of aid budgets, the inefficiency of sub-granting, increasing legal barriers and failing public trust in CSOs. Therefore, it is has become crucial to strengthen and deepen the resource mobilisation capacities of civil society. CSO boards must play their part in this. However, to borrow a religious analogy, how do they turn a clockmaker God into an active one?

The key component of resource mobilisation that occupies CSOs is fundraising. The specific fundraising issues that are often expressed are; (1) how to build an effective fundraising board, (2) the essential characteristics of effective board members, (3) the board’s role in leading fundraising, (4) orienting the board and preparing them for fundraising and (5) the importance of board leadership and why it is essential to successful fundraising.

Fundraising is all about leadership. People give resources to causes they identify with and give audience to those who can deliver those causes. Fundraising is not necessarily about the ‘asking’ but about telling a story and opening doors. Donors would not open their doors to organisations they don’t know. Therefore, fundraising is relationship-based. To grow these relationships! An organisation’s board must develop and maintain a strong connection to its benefactors and beneficiaries.

An organisation can only achieve fundraising success when the board leads fundraising efforts. Some members of the board may never attract resources directly, but can participate by making connections and advocating. It is important for boards to understand and appreciate that it is not just about the ‘ask’ but it is about knowing their organisations stories and communicating them effectively.

For boards to play this role, they need to be invested. Effective board members understand an organisation’s story and message. Too many organisations presuppose that their board members assume their story. Organisations must make sure board members do not just tell a story but rather the right story. Therefore, organisations must indoctrinate their boards in their ways; it must be organic for them to communicate on their work to make the right ‘asks’. This will enable board members to identify, cultivate and recruit prospective donor partners and new board members.

Every board is made up of three potential fundraising groups: askers, ambassadors and advocates. It is the responsibility of an organisation to assess each board member to determine which group they fall into. This process would help the organisation focus on the areas in which board members need strengthening.

According to AFP “Advancing Philanthropy”, January 2013, these are the characteristics of the three groups:

The three groups all play an important role. The advocates amplify the organisation’s story, informing potential donor partners about why the organisation is relevant to their community; they lay the foundation. Ambassadors cultivate donor relationships through their participation in networking meetings and fundraising events; they build upon the foundation. Askers leverage on cultivated relationships to mobilise new resources and manage current donor partners; they apply the finishing touches. An organisation should identify the roles that suit each of their board members and support them to work together to achieve its fundraising targets.

This process should entail empowering board members to understand their role, especially during the board recruitment process. The board recruitment committee has the responsibility to explicate these board roles and responsibilities when recruiting. The committee must make expectations clear with respect to governance insight, programme development and resource mobilisation.

As part of this process, board members must be taken through a formal orientation process that should include learning visits, onsite tours and staff engagements. This process should immerse the board members in the organisation’s work and its relationship with its stakeholders. Existing board members should also be given the responsibility to mentor new recruits to ensure knowledge and skill transfer. It is also vital to educate and train new board members on how to make the ‘ask’.

Organisations should involve board members in the cultivation and management of existing and potential donor partners. During board meetings, members should be encouraged to share contacts of potential donors they may have relationships with and strategise on how to rope them in. Board members must also be challenged to identify 2-3 fundraising tasks they want to work on every year.

Always remember, people give to causes they identify with. Resources are dwindling and if worthwhile causes are not presented to potential donors, they will not give. It is the board’s responsibility to present these causes, enticing donors to open their chequebooks and it is imperative that organisations empower them to do so.

*The Author, Charles Kojo Vandyck is WACSI’s Head, Capacity Development Unit.