Should a Board Have a Development Committee?

In the last few years, a debate has emerged among nonprofit leaders about whether or not a board of directors should have a development committee.  The people who have suggested “no” make a very good point – that fundraising is the responsibility of every board member, not just a select few.  Many observe that on boards where there are fundraising committees, the board members tend to defer and overly rely on the handful of Board members who are on that committee.

As someone who has spent most of my career as a fundraising professional and a good chunk of the rest of it as an Executive Director without a fundraising staff (and, therefore, a fundraising professional in addition to being an E.D.), I believe a development committee is vital.

The people on the development committees of the boards I’ve worked with have been some of my favorite board members of all times.  In my mind, they’ve been my peeps and have been so valuable to me that the debate has surprised me a little, although I do acknowledge the merit of the argument put forward.

Fundraising is the responsibility of every board member.  However, there are several things that are the responsibility of every board member for which boards also tend to have committees.  Nominations is a great example.  It is the responsibility of every board member to work to identify potential new board members, to introduce them to the organization, and to think about leadership succession.  Yet, we almost always have nominating committees to vet and prioritize candidates to create a slate for the whole board’s consideration.

Finance is another example.  One of the fundamental, responsibilities of a board member is to provide financial oversight, to protect assets, and to ensure adequate resources for the mission.  In practice, this usually means reviewing regular financial statements, adopting a budget, engaging a firm for an annual external audit, reviewing and approving financial controls and ensuring risk management.  These issues are all the purview of the entire board.  Yet, there is often a Finance Committee—often comprised of the board’s financial specialists such as CPA’s and bankers—charged with giving these issues careful scrutiny and then making recommendations to the full board.

Why not the same with fundraising?

Board meetings are very limited in time.  The amount that can be accomplished with a gathering of a full board is often limited and fundraising is just one of many issues to which the board must devote some attention.  Without a Development Committee, the board attention to fundraising is often not maximized.  A Development Committee discusses things like fundraising strategies and policies in detail and is able to call the full board’s limited attention to the big picture.

Recently, I have been consulting with an organization that is currently in the process of starting a development committee.  It’s been really fun to work with them and the experience has gotten me thinking about the value and importance of a development committee.  This particular nonprofit has a very strong culture of philanthropy and is full of nothing but board members who are very actively engaged in fundraising (I know:  a fundraisers dream).  If any group doesn’t need a development committee, it’s this one.  Yet, even this one, as a practical matter, has decided to create one.  For them, there are a couple of good reasons they’re creating a development committee, but one of the most significant ones is the issue of time.  The development issues on which they are currently working require more time than the full board is able to devote right now.    

From the perspective of a development director, there are a couple of things about development committees that through the years have made their members some of my favorite board members with which to work.  Development committee members make a terrific sounding-board.  Especially for development directors in smaller organizations, that might not have a staff development team, this function is especially valuable. 

Development committees provide leadership on fundraising issues for the board.  An executive Committee of a board doesn’t relieve all board members from governance responsibilities and doesn’t (or shouldn’t) usurp the powers of the full board.  Rather, an executive committee provides peer leadership and guidance, facilitating the work of a board.  A fundraising committee, similarly, helps to provide peer guidance and leadership on fundraising issues.  Likewise, development committees facilitate—rather than do—the fundraising work of the board.

A good development committee will ensure that the whole board is engaged in fundraising and will assist staff to identify strategies to engage the full board with fundraising.

Want to see a job description for a development committee?  Go here.

Share with me your stories and point of view.  Do you agree?  Have you had bad experiences with a development committee?  Have you had great fundraising experiences without a development committee?  I’d love to know!