Recently a bright young man from deep inside the Whitehall machine came to see me, to talk about how the British volunteer board might be strengthened and improved (he’d stumbled across a book I wrote on the theme – see below). This young man told me that forthcoming government cuts mean that whoever is ‘in’ after May 6th (we were meeting just days before the 2010 UK general election) will want to transfer yet more current government responsibilities to the voluntary sector. He talked about contracts and capacity and increased flexibility of funding for local authorities, and things like that. Basically what was on the table was less money for all and more central abdication of social provision. But he was worried that, rather obviously, the voluntary sector doesn’t have the capacity to take on more.
I felt obliged to agree, but observed that there might be a fantastic opportunity here. Though, I confessed that I have little confidence that anyone in or even close to government will be able to take advantage of it.
In Britain we have a long, proud tradition of voluntary board service. It’s a national treasure. But if we are honest with ourselves it could really do with revisiting and refurbishing. Many Brits imagine that our system of voluntary governance and service is the envy of the world. So it could be, but I fear it’s not at the moment. In Scandinavia they have a longer and perhaps prouder tradition of building boards that is based on a more rigorous and professional approach. From what Scandinavian friends tell me, they’re more thorough and better at it than we are.
Trustees won’t deliver their potential contribution
as leaders of fundraising until charities change their
system of recruiting and developing them. This
won’t happen until CEOs and fundraising directors
get to select and appoint board members, rather
than the other way around.
There is an opportunity here. Our society, increasingly fed on a culture of greed and celebrity that gets shallower by the day, is leaving many among its population searching for interest, purpose and fulfilment in their lives. It would not be difficult to sell the notion of effective voluntary service to the coming generation. But, for sure we need to overhaul and update the product first – the antiquated but accurate image that charity boards now enjoy will not appeal to many young people these days.
One difference in Scandinavia is that standards and expectations of board members are clearer and better understood. Scandinavians are encouraged into volunteer governance roles from an early age and expect to discharge their responsibilities properly against clearly specified and universally understood objectives and procedures. There is a culture of results-oriented, accepted best practice that’s absent in too many British boards. Nordic boards are less hampered by notions of elitism, hierarchy and smug self-satisfaction. There, board members have to deliver against objectives, or get off. Scandinavians think nothing of being required to do just that.
Warren, a new trustee.
Many of our notions of what’s involved in being a trustee are Victorian at best. Here we still confuse volunteerism and amateurism with unprofessionalism. Many board members would recoil and even revolt at the notion that they should be subjected to specialist training. Many are beyond the potential for learning. These no doubt good-hearted, well intentioned, if misguided, folk should be swept aside and replaced by qualified individuals capable of learning and putting into practice what it really means to be a volunteer board member in 2010 and beyond.
The real opportunity for change now will be if we invest in building the capacity of volunteer boards by redefining, then effectively promoting, a new brand of selfless voluntary service that really will make a difference to modern British public life. But if then the man from the government were to come back and ask me how would we do that, I’d have to say it’ll take more than good intentions and cosmetic change. What’s needed has to go much deeper.
Enter the fundraising trustee
The Institute of Fundraising recently called upon its 5,000 members to consider the legion advantages of becoming a trustee. Institute CEO Lindsay Boswell pointed out the positive effect this would have on voluntary boards and used this to justify to fundraisers’ employers the granting of time for them to do this task. Andrew Hind of the Charity Commission, Stuart Etherington of NCVO and others have thrown their weights behind the idea. Etherington has observed, ‘Becoming a charity trustee is a great opportunity to share your skills, meet new people and make a difference. Against the often complex legal responsibilities of trustees, fundraising can be overlooked or avoided on boards, especially due to nervousness around the complex rules relating to fundraising.’
It’s a great and important idea. But alone it will not solve the problem of a poorly performing board. And appointing a fundraising trustee, however qualified, should not absolve other board members from engagement in fundraising. For most charities the funding of the organisation is so crucial that its oversight unquestionably has to be a prime responsibility of the entire board.
So while I fully support Lindsay and the others, I wonder how many fundraisers will take up the challenge and what kind of a board structure they will be going into, if they do. Raised expectations will be quickly dashed if the potential for boards to change isn’t there.
The proposition to these young enthusiasts hasn’t been articulated as well as it might be. Before we encourage the coming generation to submit themselves for selection to board positions, the currently prevailing paradigm needs real change.
Really difficult questions
When very difficult questions are asked about the crucially important issues that perplex the British voluntary sector, the irritating old Irish answer to a request for directions is often the only response that fits – you really wouldn’t want to start from here.
Irritating but true for most charities if the question is, ‘how should we build an effective fundraising board?’ Not to mention that even more thorny issue, how should the sector work towards encouraging trustees to lead fundraising not just rhetorically, but by example, with their own cash? (Lack of space means this important subject will have to be an issue for another day.)
Most fundraisers, like their CEOs, know exactly what their board should be and what it should do to become truly effective. But too often the professional management is powerless to influence their board when it comes to making lasting change. This is the ‘elephant in the room’ that British voluntary organisations need to address. We need a better, more accepted and enforceable model of what is required from a charity’s volunteer board. We need agreed standards and external evaluations. Lots of fundraisers becoming trustees would be a big step in the right direction, but they won’t have much chance of impact if their board doesn’t support them fully or give them room to do a proper job.
Continued at top of column two
Fresh new faces at the board table. But will they be able to make their mark?
Continued from column one
First things first
There is no place now on any board for a trustee who despises the fundraising role or who feels that fundraising is, ‘nothing to do with me’. Fundraising, like the voluntary sector itself, isn’t about asking for money or about ‘good works’. It’s about changing the world. That’s every trustee’s role.
The first thing an organisation needs to do is to ask, do we really want to create, or to build over time, an effective fundraising board?
Then, do we want our board members all to be effective fundraisers, or do we wish our board to effectively support the fundraising function? Both are worthy aspirations. We should learn to walk before trying to run.
Many problems arise in the not-for-profit world because boards appoint fundraisers rather than the other way around. If fundraisers play a significant part in recruiting their trustees then they’ll look for and locate several suitable trustees who would not merely ‘get’ fundraising, they would come to the board prepared and equipped to play their part in the fundraising process as and when required. Not everyone on the board needs to be a fundraiser. Our model of boards that govern in close cooperative tandem with a professional management team is vastly preferable to the American model, where board members are selected for their fundraising or donating potential and often contribute little else.
There is, of course, nothing magic or particularly difficult about the role of a fundraising trustee. But we need to spell out what’s required. We need to give trustees a job specification and to interview at least three potential candidates for each post, turning down at least two of these and perhaps all three if none are suitable. ‘Jobs for the boys’ has no place in the British boardroom now.
- In each charity the combined talents of the professional CEO and the volunteer board chair should focus on building and developing the right kind of board, with appropriate standards and terms of service.
- Every charity board should have at least one trustee specifically responsible for fundraising, with appropriate experience. He or she should be appointed from a shortlist of qualified candidates proposed by the head of fundraising and his or her team.
- As with all trustees, the fundraising trustee should have a clear job description. When acting as fundraising trustee outside board meetings he or she should be accorded the status of an honoured and respected volunteer, there to support the professionals, not direct.
- All trustees should have fixed terms of service.
- Any trustee’s failure to perform sufficiently against the agreed criteria for the role should be swiftly put right by the chair and CEO. A consistently underperforming trustee should be no more tolerated than an underperforming staff member.
- Make the board open, transparent, fully accountable. Incoming trustees should be clear about what kind of organisation they are joining; what its role and place is.
- Make the board mission-focused. Boards get too wrapped up in their business. Each board should start with a mission moment.
- The donation of time is often as valuable as a gift of money and should be appreciated. But only if its value can be properly quantified or assessed.
- Make sure the board is a safe place to express opinions. Trustee boards need cabinet-style rules, particularly in collectively supporting a decision once agreed.
- Each board should have a place at its table for an absent guest, preferably three. The three empty chairs symbolise the interests of beneficiaries, donors and absent staff, all huge stakeholders in the board’s outcomes.
- Import some American-style energy – make yours a fired-up, fully engaged board thrilled by possibilities and inspired to raise the funds that will make things happen. Boards need to realise that fundraising isn’t about asking for money, it’s about changing the world.
Board members serve the organisation, not the other way around. Board seats are limited and it’s a privilege to be considered worthy of occupying one. If a board member is inert, incompetent or ineffective, he or she needs to be told so in no uncertain terms so she will make way for someone who is active and productive.
Empowering the fundraising trustee, however, will take more than just an influx onto boards of enthusiastic, experienced fundraisers, welcome though that would be. It will require a fundamental overhaul of the way we want boards to be viewed and to operate.
© Ken Burnett 2010
This article first appeared in the magazine Caritas in June 2010. Ken Burnett served on the board of ActionAid from 1995 to 2009 and was chair of trustees from 1998 leading up to internationalisation of the organisation in 2003. Throughout his time on ActionAid’s board Ken was the trustee specifically responsible for fundraising. Ken Burnett is also a past board member of The Institute of Fundraising, The Resource Alliance and Book Aid International. He is author of Relationship Fundraising, The Zen of Fundraising and several other books including Tiny Essentials of an Effective Volunteer Board. Ken is also founder and managing trustee for the archive of fundraising best practice, the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration (SOFII), a free resource for fundraisers worldwide. To plug any serious gaps on your library shelf, click here, or here.
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