Letting Donors Vote for Board Members

A couple weeks ago we discussed the idea of letting donors vote for nonprofit board members. Some people liked the idea, others were concerned that nonprofits should be serving the needs of the broader public, not simply responding to donor’s desires. I’m mixed on the idea. On the whole, I think that to the extent nonprofits want to access social capital market money, the form of that capital must be designed differently than a donation. A lot of imagination still has to go into this process, but I have a hard time understanding how a nonprofit could ask for an “investment” instead of a “donation” and yet treat the transaction the same. That’s just marketing. If investing in a nonprofit is more than just spin, than the transaction involved must live up to the words that describe it.

Jeff Brooks, at Donor Power Blog, writes regularly about how nonprofits can “empower” donors in ways that help the nonprofit further their mission. Yesterday, Jeff weighed in on the donor voting debate and he’s given me permission to repost his thoughts here:

I think it’s a dynamite idea, even though the choice of board members is not likely to be very exciting to most donors. Really, on what basis would the average donor choose one board member over another?

Even so, I’ve never yet seen giving donors power of any kind not work. My guess is very few donors would exercise their proxy vote. But that they’d appreciate the chance, and that would lead to more giving, higher gift amounts, and better retention. That’s what happens pretty much every time you show donors that you respect them.

Commentary at Tactical Philanthropy seems to be running against the idea, because of the assumption that given the chance, donors are going to do something stupid. Like elect a moron to the board. Or force the nonprofit to betray its own mission.

Worst-case scenario thinking always takes you to such bogus places.

If I ran a nonprofit, I’d look for every way possible to involve donors. I’d want more than their money. I’d want their ideas, their hearts, their thinking.

If you’re afraid your donors are going to screw you, you’re in trouble. While you’re protecting yourself from your donors’ predations, they’ll be flocking to the smart organizations that respect them.

In the comment section to Jeff’s post, some reader suggested that it is unrealistic to think that donors would be able to make an informed decision about which board members to support. I think this is correct UNLESS the nonprofit was able to effectively communicate the organization’s mission, the steps the were taking to further that mission and the progress and setbacks that they faced. That sounds like the kind of nonprofit that I would be excited to support!


  1. foundationwriter says:

    But I thought “investing” was a better way to “frame” it. maybe you should define “social investment.”

  2. Ha! You got me. In a previous post I argued to you that how something was framed was important in its own right. But in this post I suggest that nonprofit must do more than frame donations as investments.

    I’d like to think those two statements are not contradictory. I do think that investing is a better frame than donating for nonprofits to approach (many, but not all) donors with. However, I think for that frame to be correct and not just spin, they must follow through in the way I’ve laid out in the post above.