How to Build a Development Committee that Rocks!

The viability of every nonprofit chorus depends on the success of its development committee and the effectiveness of the committee chair. With so much riding on this work, how should the board arrange its priorities? Maybe not in the way you’d expect.

You love your chorus and you like being on the board, but now the board chair has come to you and asked you to lead the development committee. You say, “I’m no good at asking for money! I wouldn’t be any good at chairing the committee.” Still, you can’t say no.

So here you are. Stuck in a role you dread. But wait! There’s a better way. First ask the question,

are we all barking up the wrong tree? Is the role of heading the development committee only for someone who is fabulous at asking people for gifts? What if the person good at soliciting is not necessarily best at leading? Maybe the committee would be more effective under a chair who brings other skills. Someone like you.

The first thing to be clear about: The whole board is responsible for raising the money it takes to keep your chorus healthy. That is not something to turn over to a development committee.

Now I’ve said it!

Simone Joyaux, certified fundraising executive and long-time consultant, writes: “I want every organization to have a Fund Development Committee. This is a committee of the board, reporting to the board, helping the board fulfill its legal and moral obligations to ensure the health and effectiveness of the organization.”

Notice she doesn’t call it a fundraising committee. That’s because this committee isn’t the only group responsible for asking for money. Oh no! Board members cannot turn over their responsibilities to others. As Joyaux says, “Board member performance expectations include many things, only some of which relate to fund development. The Fund Development Committee is not responsible for raising the money. The Fund Development Committee helps the board ensure that the money is raised.”

This brings up the question, what, then, does the development committee have to do—really? Let’s look at eight things:

1. Help set the fundraising goals for your chorus.

Do not let the finance committee tell you how much needs to be raised next year by simply subtracting expected earned income (like ticket sales and tuition) from expected expenses. We always have the desire to spend more money than we can take in. Be active in working towards a realistic, yet audacious, goal for contributed income. Build on what you raised last year and in years before, and look in detail at your donor base so that the committee really knows what gifts and grants can be repeated and what must come from upgrades and new donors or grantors. In other words, build your goals from the bottom up and base them on your history.

While looking at goals, you and the governance committee should also discuss and decide on the suggested minimum gift or dollar range board members will be asked to contribute yearly.

2. Take part in writing the annual funding plan.

CompassPoint, a Bay Area consulting firm, says one important role of the development committee is “to work with staff to establish a fundraising plan that incorporates a series of appropriate vehicles, such as special events, direct mail, product sales, etc.” If you are a chorus with no staff, like the chorus I chair, then volunteers write the plan. With staff, the process is easier, but in any case have your plan ready well before the start of the new fiscal year! Be sure to weigh in on the strategies you will use to accomplish your goals. Staff can assist, but it is up to you to help determine how much the committee really can do.

Be sure to include the following in your plan:

  • Giving history in all categories over the past several years (dollars, number of donors, etc.)
  • Goals for each area (foundations, government, individuals, special events). Be realistic.
  • A summary chart of gifts you plan to get
  • Detailed strategies and tactics, including soliciting and stewardship
  • A calendar of all the activities for the year, such as mailings, communications, proposal writing, dates for thank-you events, and dates for any big fundraisers

Set strategies for this year, but be sure you can actually accomplish the tasks during the year. Here are some sample tasks that might be included:

  • Find three new foundations for education program and research them.
  • Hold the first-ever major donor thank-you event for your chorus.
  • Acquire, install, and begin to use new development software.
  • Research all alumnae families (youth chorus).
  • Form a former board group.
  • Send two mailings this year plus an e-request (with dates).
  • Revamp the gala.
  • Secure 25 new individual donors.

Kim Klein has written an excellent, readable book called Fundraising for the Long Haul. In it, she reminds us that fundraising strategies do wear out. We all hope that the one development plan that was written four years ago is still good and works. But times and people change. That event you have been doing forever might not be appropriate or successful anymore. The direct mail appeal yields less, but it keeps looking the same every year. The auction feels stale. More people are giving online. You must revisit your plan very carefully each year and make hard decisions about what you and the chorus will do. It is not an option to complete only some of the plan’s strategies. See what was accomplished, what worked, what didn’t get done, and write a new game plan—every year.

3. Set gift acceptance policies.

“A gift acceptance policy guides a nonprofit in the types of gifts it can accept and educates the staff and board about critical issues triggered by certain gifts,” writes attorney and consultant Kathryn W. Miree for The Foundation Center.

A carefully thought-out policy answers questions such as these:

  • What types of gifts will the organization accept, and what will it not accept?
  • Under what circumstances will gifts be accepted?
  • How will gifts be recognized and tracked?
  • How will major gifts like real estate, life insurance policies, and stock be handled?

It also talks about ethics and keeping the gift a true gift. An example of a problem might be that a parent of a young singer promises to give a major gift if his or her daughter is accepted in the “travel” chorus, or asks for another special favor that creates a conflict of interest for the chorus. 

Another valuable resource is the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Ethical Standards, which can be found at www.afpnet.org.

4. Monitor fundraising costs.

Actively! This needs little explanation, other than to say that many development committees don’t seem to examine them. The obvious items to monitor carefully are your special events. Special event fundraisers should raise at least one dollar for every 50 cents spent. Don’t let them get out of hand. You should look at benefits for donors at various gift levels for your annual fund as well.

5. Suggest people for board membership.

Partner with the governance (a.k.a. nominating) committee to ensure that people interested in and capable of fundraising come on to the board. Suggest people who might one day make major gifts to your chorus. Help the board chair and governance committee ensure that committee assignments are appropriate. Keep the communication open between your two committees. It will make for a better, stronger, and more enthusiastic board.

6. Talk with one another.

Communicate with other members of the board in between meetings. Just as you are keeping the lines open between development and finance and between development and governance, spend some time in personal, one-on-one conversation with all board members, keeping them enthusiastic, and up to date on the latest. The development committee members can help the board chair a great deal in this area. A strong, friendly, and involved board gets things done! You, the development chair, and the other committee members are the communicators, the enthusiasts, the parental types, the inspiration. You set the tone—which is really important.

Is it time to talk about soliciting yet?  No—not yet!

7. Make assignments.

Carefully delegate or help delegate activities related to fundraising to individual board members. These activities might be to secure auction items, to thank donors or keep a special donor updated on what’s going on, to introduce a new person to the chorus by bringing him or her to a concert, to ask a composer to write a pro bono commission, or maybe to help write a foundation proposal or report.

When making personal assignments, use a work sheet. This is a written document that contains the name of the board member, the task, the due date, any necessary contact information, and perhaps some talking points or background information. The written sheet is a great reminder, and of course it helps by being a record of what the board member was asked to do.

8. Oh yes—solicit gifts.

If you have taken care of the responsibilities above, this step is easy! You will have donors who know the exciting things your chorus is doing and audience members who feel the friendliness and warmth of the choral environment. They’ll be saying, “When are you going to ask me to support you and what do you need?”

First, stop messing with the tools in the toolbox. Creating tools takes time and delays asking. Overusing tools keeps the ask at arm’s length. A personal letter or phone call is better than a brochure. A visit is better than anything. Complete those gift policies (Step 3) quickly and get ready to talk with one another.

If board members are uncomfortable with making asks, the first and best place to start is with each other. Practice thanking and then practice asking each other for gifts.

Empathy, energy, enthusiasm—those are the three things Jerry Panas talks about in his little book Asking as being the characteristics of a successful fundraiser. You don’t have to be an extrovert—in fact, one of the best fundraisers I ever met in the university world is an introvert. Your own style is your best ally.

And what does the development committee chair have to do—really?

The development chair needs to be a member of the executive committee of the board, and committee members can include both board and non-board.

Make committee meetings interesting—they need to be discussions of important topics and not just reports of what the staff has done to raise money. They need also to be meetings when assignments can be made and ideas on how to solve problems or undertake initiatives can be put forward.

Communicate with each member of your committee regularly—care and feeding will get you engaged members and good results. Help them follow up on their assignments.

Communicate with the board chair on important recommendations and ideas from the committee. Do this before the report at the next board meeting.

Keep track of the board’s giving and help staff by encouraging committee members to talk with board members to get them to complete their gifts.

In case you’re still not sure you’re a good fit for this job, here’s one more piece of advice: Stay in touch with the passion that brought you to the chorus in the first place. As Jerry Panas says, “The most powerful weapon on earth for good is the human soul on fire.”


In her 35-year career in philanthropy, Corty Fengler has served as director of development for the San Francisco Symphony, and as a consultant for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and many choruses, orchestras, and schools. Currently she is chair of the board of Cappella SF, a professional chamber choir, and serves on the board of Chorus America. Fengler sings with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus.

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