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Effective Engagement of Board Members

This article was first published January 3, 2015. A conversation with Linda Durant, Senior Vice President, University Advancement, Widener University
A Board of Trustees is the most important group of leaders on any campus. So how do we, as the Advancement team, most effectively engage them, encourage them, and bring them on board prepared to be confident and proactive fundraisers? We asked Linda Durant to share her perspective about effective engagement of Board members.Linda, in your experience with Boards, what is the best approach to effectively engage Board members in the priorities of the university? How specifically might we engage them in raising philanthropic support?

It is important to engage them right from the start. One of the best ways to accomplish this is through their direct involvement with the strategic planning process. They should be communicated with and asked for feedback continuously throughout the process. This begins with the vision and mission and follows through to the goals and objectives. For example, at the beginning of our process, we held a day-long visioning conference and all our trustees were invited to participate.

Their involvement and commitment to raising funds comes as a result of their participation in the campaign planning process. This can be accomplished by keeping your trustee advancement committee informed throughout the process and by creating a trustee campaign steering committee to help guide the process. They are useful in “testing” the priorities that are developed along the way and it is also a useful tool to learn what their particular funding interests may be.

How do you support them in terms of their time and ability to participate in the process of raising support for our institutions?

They should be treated the same way you treat and support your president or head of school. Their time is to be respected and used prudently. For example, donor profiles should be given well in advance along with written strategies for any of the solicitations they will be involved with – either with the president or another advancement officer. Also, they should help in “testing” the funding priorities that are identified along the way in the planning process. They can be your best and first feasibility study constituents. Also, they are perfect partners for you in the cultivation and stewardship work you are doing. For those who do not like to be involved in solicitations, it is valuable work for them.

For someone who is hesitant to participate in this process, what steps might you take to engage them?

Training/training/training! We often forget or don’t fully appreciate that they are not fundraisers and it doesn’t come naturally to many of them. It is our responsibility to provide training and practical experiences for them at the beginning. This should include sessions such as what I call “Campaign 101” so they fully understand the breadth and complexities of a campaign. Other training will depend on the extent of their involvement and what they are comfortable doing in the campaign.

Results vary according to the individual. In our case, one trustee was a star right from the start and became our campaign chair; a year before that, I never would have expected it. Results will indicate the best roles for each trustee.

In identifying, cultivating and recruiting trustees, what emphasis is given to their understanding of your expectations re: their philanthropic role (“giving and getting”)?

An important first step in this recruitment and vetting process is the research that should be done before an individual is ever approached. Typically the president and the chair of the trusteeship committee will review the research before any further action is taken. Once an individual is vetted, the first meeting is held to determine if there is any interest in serving on your board and learning about their other philanthropic priorities. Once you are at the stage of asking the individual to join the board, a candid conversation with the president and the board member as to their giving intentions and level of comfort in soliciting or identifying other donors is in order.

What are some of the lessons learned? What advice might you share with others who want to engage their board members more effectively in raising philanthropic support?

Probably the hardest, but most important lesson is to be patient. We must keep in mind that these are volunteers who lead very busy lives. We are just one element of their life. Learn as much as you can about them so you are sensitive and aware of this fact. For example, learn who needs to worry about childcare and who has an extremely rigorous work schedule that cannot be altered. Then work around those issues as proactively as you can.

The most effective approach I have seen to engaging board members is when they interact with other volunteers and board members. Utilize your board leadership and early adopters who are champions for your institution. This can be contagious and very moving for a lot of volunteers. It is also less threatening and intimidating when it is peer-to-peer conversations.

As senior vice president for university advancement, Linda S. Durant is responsible for the university’s comprehensive campaign, alumni engagement, development, corporate and foundation relations, government and external relations, and university relations for all of Widener University’s four campuses.

She also serves as the liaison to the university’s Board of Trustees. She has been in this role since 2003. During the past decade, Durant served on the faculty and as chair of numerous educational programs offered by CASE, including the Winter Institute 2012 for Chief Development Officers and the Development for Boards and Academic Leaders conference.

She has chaired the CASE District I and District II annual conferences and served as a member of the CASE National Board of Trustees. She presently serves as Past-Chair of the CASE District Two Board of Directors. She is an adjunct faculty member for the Widener Master of Public Administration Program.

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