How to increase trustee participation in philanthropy

How to increase trustee participation in philanthropy

Guest Bloggers | 16 March 2017

The recent ICO rulings and impending introduction of the Fundraising Preference Service will change the nature of individual giving to the extent that many organisations will feel pressure to increase income from other sources, including philanthropy, to ensure they are able to deliver the same quality and quantity of programmes and services.

This pressure is exacerbated by the threats to statutory funding that some organisations are experiencing in the wake of Brexit, in particular those reliant on funding from DFID and ECHO. 

At the same time, we are seeing an increase in the number of gifts of £1 million or more, suggesting the philanthropy market is recovering to it pre financial crash levels and presenting an opportunity to increase income from philanthropy. 

Although there is a lack of empirical evidence, case studies and qualitative research show us that better relationships with Trustees results in better philanthropy. In their 2012 research entitled “Great Fundraising” Adrian Sargent and Jen Shang found that the fundraising directors of the most successful fundraising teams in the UK spent around 50% of their time advocating for fundraising in the rest of the organisation, including building relationships with Trustees. Research from Ian MacQuillin and the team at Rogare backs this up. They are advocating for a shift from relationship fundraising focusing entirely on the relationship with the donor, to what they are terming “total” relationship fundraising which also includes building and developing relationships with the next tier of stakeholders, and Trustees in particular. 

This makes it the perfect time to increase Trustee participation in Philanthropy. The question is, how?

Sweat the small stuff 

Pay attention to the detail because being the most competent version of yourself is even more important when you're working directly with the Chair and Trustees. Try to really understand the Trustees you work with, how they like to receive information, how long deadlines need to be for them, and what format and style they like information to be in. Your ultimate aim is to build their confidence in you and your ability to not let them down, so that they feel confident you would give the same level of care and attention to a relationship you had with someone they introduced you to. It's also important to set-up a structure of accountability and consistency that works for your organisation. This will vary depending on the size of your philanthropy function.


Good news! Trustees can support and participate in philanthropy at every stage of the engagement cycle. 

Identify: If you are very specific about what constitutes a potential supporter for your organisation, one of the most obvious ways a Trustee can support is by identifying potential supporters from their personal and professional networks. Another way that is often overlooked, and is sometimes easier, is for your trustees to review a list of potential supporters and gate-keepers that you have put together to see who they may know. 

Cultivate: It is easy to overlook how powerful a personalised letter or email from your Chair can be in unlocking relationships that are not moving forward. Obviously, it goes without saying that you need to be incredibly careful you are compiling with data protection legislation. Asking your Trustee to attend a meeting with you can be very impactful, but choose meetings wisely, they should be your highest value relationships and potential relationships, and initially they should be the ones most likely to be successful. 

The Ask: It is not always appropriate for your Trustees or Chair to personally make the Ask of your potential supporters. Respect this and make full use of their support in other ways. If they do feel comfortable, ensure that you have given them sufficient training and discussed what you have personally found works well, and some of the experiences you have had that didn’t go so well. 

Stewardship: This can be one of the best places to start your Trustees in philanthropy – it is a feel good, high impact activity. If you do encounter it, considering pushing back on short-term orientated resistance you might get that stewardship is not high yielding enough to justify your Trustees engagement. It can also be a great transition into supporting with the cultivation of that supporter in the future. 


Two key debates 

Should you interaction with your Trustees as you interact with philanthropists themselves?  

One school of thought says, “yes”.  

I agree that you should be building relationships carefully and considerately, be relentlessly efficient and deliver on your promises in the same way that you would with a philanthropist. But this perspective could miss the point. Your Trustees are uniquely positioned within the organisation to have the highest-level, cross-departmental perspective on a range of areas. It is their job to know more than you do about the breadth of the organisational strategy. If you interact with them as you would a philanthropist, you won't ask them for their thoughts on a strategy or new philanthropy proposition, and will miss the huge insight they might have. 

The flip side to this is that your Trustees are highly unlikely to have the depth of knowledge you have about philanthropy, so it’s important to discuss the theory behind philanthropy with your Trustees, including the expected time-frames to move through the engagement cycle.

Should trustees also be major donors? 

There isn’t consistency from leaders in the sector about whether Trustees should be expected to also give financially themselves, ideally at a level that is significant to them. Some believe that all trustees should “demonstrate leadership through their own gifts, according to capacity”. The counter argument is that your trustees give you so much already and you can miss their wider support but focusing on giving. My personal perspective on this is that it is too narrow to look at whether your Trustees have supported financially in a given year – it’s about the long game and their cumulative support, in terms of time, expertise, introductions and donations.


Influence the system  

Finally, remember that being able to engage with your Trustees requires you to have competent, ambitious, open-minded Trustees in the first place. If you don’t feel your organisation has the right Trustees, or enough of the right Trustees, be propositional. Make a compelling case to your senior leadership team about the benefits of having a Trustee that can really support the philanthropy function, and do your homework on who this could be.


Hannah-Polly WilliamsHead of Philanthropy and Partnerships, International Rescue Committee UK

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