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In our weekly column, consultants with decades of nonprofit experience answer your questions about fundraising, boards, strategy and more. To ask a question and be featured (anonymously!) in the column, email your questions to info@twbfundraising.com.

This week’s question will be answered by Nora Kyger.

The Dilemma

I work at a medium-sized nonprofit. We’re starting a campaign soon and my board is insisting that we ask an internationally known A-list celebrity who grew up in the area for a gift. No one at our organization or on the board knows (or knows anyone who knows) the celebrity. She has never donated to our organization. Nothing suggests she has a strong connection to our mission.

But my board remains convinced that she is the key to our campaign’s success. What can I say to convince them otherwise?

Nora’s Response

My guess is that your instincts are probably right, but just saying “that’s not going to work” to your board won’t really get you anywhere – you might be heard as being too negative or squelching their ideas. The fact that she grew up in your area is at least a small start and maybe you can build on it. Has she donated to any other nonprofit in the same area? Does anyone on your board know someone who knows her? What schools did she attend?  Does she have a foundation or is she on the board of any? These are clues which might lead you to be able to make some sort of approach to her. In fact, I had one client who really did get a gift from Oprah Winfrey!

In the meantime, it is important that you start talking with your board about the prospects that you do believe can make significant gifts and involving them with those cultivations and solicitations. Often a board (or any group of volunteers) will start dreaming about silver-bullet celebrities because they can’t think of any other real prospects or they don’t know what they can do to help raise the funds your organization needs. Share with them who are already cultivating or wish to cultivate, and engage them in those activities.  Being involved and seeing progress will help them see that there are other solid options to pursue to achieve your goals.

If you are trying to build your pipeline (and who isn’t?) set up a process to involve them in building that pipeline with stronger prospects, such as by reviewing their LinkedIn connections or sitting down with them individually or in a small group and ask them to review your current major prospect list (including corporations) to see who they know or where they can help you gain access. For board members who are truly interested in helping, explore whether they would be good candidates for your development committee or campaign committee. (There is obviously a lot more to say about running a campaign effectively and volunteer management, but we’ll leave those to other “Dilemmas.”)

In short, don’t reject ideas from your volunteers out of hand if you can find some value with a little digging or talking with colleagues, and make sure your board is engaged and sees the progress in the work that you and your team are doing to make the campaign a success.

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