It takes a village to raise funds: the role of management, trustees and donors in fundraising

12 April 2016

[Editor’s note: A version of this article was originally published at Politics & Ideas, by Vanesa Weyrauch and Tomás Garzón de la Roza. It is based on the Re-thinking funding models course being offered by the On Think Tanks School .]

Even organisations with a strong and well-functioning fundraising unit need further involvement to succeed in raising funds. This post considers how different actors must contribute towards the same goals: senior managers, members of governance bodies (e.g. trustees, board members), and donors.

We have already discussed how the communications unit (if existent) can be helpful.


Executive directors of think tanks often very effective fundraisers. However, in other scenarios this can be more challenging. For example, those in leadership positions sometimes find it very difficult to do research, manage the organisation, and do fundraising at the same time.

They might prioritise investing their time in core functions of the think tank like policy research planning and influence. In addition, in certain cases the managing director is uncomfortable with delegating fundraising tasks due to control or competency concerns or because he or she not duly convinced of the value of professional fundraising (broadly understood), which might leave those in charge of fundraising somewhat on a limb.

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Whatever the distribution of fundraising responsibilities, it is essential for the executive director and its fellow senior staff members to be fully committed to the fundraising effort. Indeed, committees that evaluate projects or funding proposals usually include executive directors and senior managers. 

Board members and trustees

Think tanks that have solid governance bodies can greatly benefit from them in fundraising terms. However, this is not always the case. In some organisations, board members and trustees are mostly concerned with legal, financial, and strategic oversight, which does not necessarily mean they will make it their own responsibility to help the organisation obtain funds. As with managers, they may not be familiar with fundraising techniques nor be persuaded that it is their job to pursue it.

It is reasonable to assume that in most cases, board members will be relevant individuals with good connections, and in turn they have great potential for fundraising purposes. Some think tanks find it useful to involve them beyond their compulsory board meetings. For example, CIPPEC in Argentina has a small committee within the board that is specifically devoted to funding, with the participation of some senior staff members. In the case of FUSADES in El Salvador, board members are active participants of the think tank’s research teams.

This provides an excellent connection between the organisation and the world of potential sources of funding.

In sum, board members and trustees may approach donors themselves and may be a great source of advice for the fundraising unit or the executive director when devising strategies to do it.

Generally speaking, board members provide more value when they have explicit and personalised goals set for them (see how Grupo Faro has strengthened its board of directors). On the one hand, it is important to match their preferences and skills to their goals, which implies that those with a flair for fundraising would be crucial to a committee like the one mentioned. On the other, fundraising support can be expected from all board members (i.e. in non-profits).

Working with donors

Relating to a donor is not just a contractual question. Ideally, donors and board members are bound by a relationship based on the ‘mutual commitment of resources to a shared future’. + This perspective has a long-term horizon: any one-off contribution, grant or contract can be only the beginning of an enduring relationship. Moreover, it is a collective perspective whereby any donor becomes part of a larger network of individuals and organisations that collaborate towards a common end – the think tank’s mission. The best donors are partners, and the best possible modus operandi is to work together rather than being recipients of their resources. +

Developing relationships can be challenging when the only available channel is a website to submit electronic applications. However, this is not generally the case. Some donors may be easily accessible for face-to-face meetings, while others may be located in distant countries. But it is increasingly possible to find moments for conversation and exchange of ideas that at some point amount to personal relationships – be that through e-mail, conference calls or occasionally in conferences or workshops.

What matters is the willingness to listen and have conversations rather than simply following application procedures or submitting formal requests.+