Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Elect a janitor to your board?

The other day, an entry in The Chronicle of Philanthropy caught my eye. Entitled "The Janitor Who became a Major Donor," it told the story of Randy Vanness, who works as a janitor for a elementary school in Wisconsin. Several years ago,  Randy lost his 27 year old son to myocarditis, a disease that attacks the heart suddenly and can cause death unless detected quickly. Diagnosis is difficult. Coincidentally a nephew of mine succumbed to the disease without warning in 2012  at age 44.

Shortly after the loss of his son, Mr. Vanness began to raise money through events to benefit the Myrocarditis Foundation, which is based in Colorado. He organized two fundraisers. The first netted $15,000 and the second almost $17,000, all sent to the Myocarditis Foundation as unrestricted gifts.  Carol Weisman, who wrote the article in The Chronicle on Vanness had been hired to recruit board members for the Foundation. She decided to contact Mr. Vanness to discuss if he would be willing to join the board.

That idea, in itself, would seem  to be outside the norm of the profile of "usual" board members. Mr. Vanness was not a wealthy professional and had no special skills  (I do not like the overworked phrase "skillset") to bring to the table, such as accounting or marketing.  What he did have of course was the ability to raise money derived from a passion for, and an understanding of, the  mission of the Foundation - to educate the public about the nature of this terrible  disease.

Ms. Weisman and Randy had a long discussion about the responsibilities of a board member and what role he might play. He was at first reluctant and worried that he might not fit in.  She went back to the board and asked if they had any objection to their being addressed by first names. She thought this necessary given the formal culture of the board. A number of members were doctors. All issues were sorted out, and Mr.Vanness attended his first board meeting. He brought with him two  checks, one of which represented the proceeds from his school's fourth, fifth and sixth grade spring dance. At the meeting he reportedly not only offered brilliant insights, he was the only one in attendance who knew how to assemble the easel!

The point of this story is not just to warm the heart but to challenge the preconceptions we have of people (book by the cover) and to encourage us to think about the qualities we want in board members. Given the financial pressures on nonprofits, the first thought is: who has the money? A person of wealth is always a prospect. In the recruitment process it is wise to determine that person's commitment to the organization's mission and where on his or her chart of charitable commitments the organization might fit.

Just because the pockets are deep doesn't mean the hand will reach in and pull out a fistful of dollars for your nonprofit. There may be other priorities.

Here's an example from my own experience. A  person who I knew had considerable means called me one day and said he wanted to make a  donation. He needed  to be sure it went to a certain program's endowment. I assured him it would- in fact I had to repeat that assurance several times. So I waited expectantly for the check, which arrived, in the amount of $25. To be fair the donor later gave a generous five figure donation to a capital campaign.

You may have heard of the "give or get" theory- that a board member should either give $ or get others to give them. Or ideally, both. Randy Vanness is an example of the "get" side of that equation. On the surface his "station in life" did not suggest that ability. However, not only did he believe deeply in the organization's purpose but he had gone out and acted on his passion with excellent and tangible results..

Assumption is often at the root of  bad decisions. You assume electing a person to your board based on his bank account will unlock his safe deposit box for you. You may also assume a person living a simple life with little disposable income can offer little to your organization. Check again - and accept that pun for what it's worth. You may be surprised. Remember Randy Vanness.