Why fundraisers are key to successful charity boards
About six months ago, I was in a meeting, convened by the Institute, with other senior fundraisers discussing the most significant challenges and opportunities facing the sector.
As we went around the table, the topic of governance came up repeatedly...
“How can I get my board to take an appropriate interest in fundraising?”
“How can I help my board to understand the case for investment in fundraising?”
“How can I ensure we are pitching our board conversations about fundraising at the right level?”
There was clearly a sense that, following a period of intense regulatory scrutiny, the pendulum had shifted from what might be described as “benign neglect” of fundraising by many trustee boards to a more active interest, as trustees have woken up to their duty to accept overall responsibility and accountability for fundraising. The challenge we recognised was around helping trustees appreciate both their duty to manage and own risks while also embracing opportunities for fundraising. Fundraising can be a relatively technical discipline, and there is, rightly, an increasing focus on regulatory requirements, which can be intimidating. Getting the balance right is key. And as we continued our discussion, I realised that the solution was literally starting us all in the face: we are the solution – meaning, as senior fundraisers, we have a responsibility to serve as trustees ourselves.
I have personally found serving as a charity trustee to be one of the most valuable – and rewarding – experiences of my career. Over the past decade, I have had the privilege of serving as a trustee on the boards of several charities, some tiny and others large, allowing me to contribute to a broad range of causes about which I care passionately. Being a trustee has also undoubtedly accelerated my professional development. It has provided me a window into how strategic decisions are taken and how executive teams interact with their boards, perspective that I have been able to apply in my own organisation. By working with charities at diverse stages in their lifecycle, I’ve gotten to be part of discrete experiences – a major capital appeal, a merger, and a strategic repositioning – to which I would not have otherwise had access in the same timeframe through my employment alone. I cannot recommend trusteeship highly enough to my colleagues as a sound, and cost-effective, development opportunity.
And whilst I would recommend becoming a trustee to anyone with relevant skills and time to contribute, I think professional fundraisers have a special role to play in increasing board effectiveness across the sector. Most larger charities include a lawyer, an accountant, and at least one professional with domain expertise in the area that the charity operates on their board as standard. I would love to see us get to a place where there is a similar norm around having a professional fundraiser on board as well. It would help promote good practice by making it easier to ensure that fundraising is given appropriate support and challenge by the board.
It would also help establish the value of our discipline as an autonomous profession. This will not necessarily be appropriate for all charities: the Charity Commission report on trusteeship issued this week notes that c. 80% of charities have no paid staff, and for smaller charities that do not engage in significant public fundraising, having a professional fundraiser on board may not be necessary (although fundraisers can clearly add value to these grassroots organisations as well).
So my challenge to my fellow fundraisers who are not already serving on a board is to consider seriously becoming a charity trustee. Look for a charity whose cause inspires you. Think about where you can add value and also learn and grow in your own career. And then make contact and see if there is a fit! Research suggests that most boards have at least one vacancy, so it’s always worth a conversation.
There are also several portals for registering trustee vacancies, including Russam’s Trustees Unlimited, Do-It’s Trustee Finder, and regular job listings for trustees on CharityJob and Guardian Jobs. Why not make it your new year’s resolution to invest in your own development and give back to a charity that needs your help by becoming a charity trustee?
Meredith Niles, Executive Director of Fundraising and Engagement at Marie Curie
Looking to engage your trustees with fundraising? Take a look at the IoF's Trustees and Fundraising guidance