Board Talk: Should charity trustees be involved in fundraising?

Oonagh Smyth and Linda Laurance discuss how hands-on a trustee should be

Board talk
Board talk

OS: I certainly don't think trustees should be required to raise funds. You have to be careful about blurring the line between being a trustee and being involved with the operations of a charity.

I've worked with organisations that have asked trustees to give time operationally to a department of the charity, depending on their expertise. One trustee who had experience in fundraising started to work closely with the director of fundraising. The result was that they went completely over the head of the chief executive, who didn't know what was happening in fundraising and was left embarrassed in a meeting with key funders. Trustees that do get involved with the operational side of the charity need to be clear that they are doing so as volunteers, not in their capacity as trustees.

LL: I agree. It is important that trustees have access to the knowledge of fundraisers, without getting directly involved.

OS: The other thing to watch out for is that trustees who are involved in fundraising can start to feel like they should have a bigger say in how their money is spent, so there can be a conflict of interest. You want to avoid a situation in which each trustee is trying to decide how the £3,000 they raised should be spent.

LL: I see your point, but I think some trustees could be more open-minded about how they can assist the income-generation process more than they do. I know that in the US, many board members do fundraise, and we shouldn't knock that.

Oonagh SmythOS: We shouldn't, but where trustees are actively involved in fundraising, close attention needs to be paid to it. For instance, a trustee might decide to run a fundraising dinner and they might, without thinking, invite an organisation whose values are not in line with those of the charity.

You have to do the 'tabloid test' by asking what a certain situation could look like from the outside. Having ad-hoc trustee fundraising could mean you miss out important checks and balances.

LL: Yes, it's never a good idea for individual trustees to just go off and do something without talking to the chair. Usually it's not about the trustee asking for permission or approval - it's simply keeping the chair and chief executive informed. That in itself can be a good way for a trustee to indicate to staff that they are thinking about income generation.

OS: I agree. Doing so can have major benefits for the relationship between staff and trustees. Trustees need to understand what is feasible in terms of raising money, because in some cases they have unrealistic expectations, to say the least.

Linda LauranceLL: The problem is that trustees can be very reluctant to get involved with fundraising. I've seen trustees who have been brought onto the board on the understanding that they have good contacts rather than appropriate skills or an understanding of the organisation, but have then refused to ask their friends and colleagues for money or for support in other forms.

OS: Yes, it can be frustrating when expectations aren't met. But I still think that, in general, charities need to ask whether they want trustees to be effective fundraisers or would rather see them effectively supporting the fundraising activity.

For me, the latter is more important. Requiring trustees to fundraise could be a barrier to people with all kinds of other skills, and it could cause trustees to lose track of the overall strategy by focusing too much on the money.

The other problem with requiring trustees to raise money is that it overlooks all the more indirect benefits they can offer, such as raising the charity's profile, offering pro-bono professional support, networking and asking friends and colleagues to volunteer for the charity. Often a trustee is better placed to do this than they are to raise cash. Trustees should have access to expert fundraisers and should be able to learn a lot from them, but I don't think it's very important that they are directly involved.

LL: Yes, and the other important thing to remember is that the core of trusteeship is about ensuring good governance. If there's too much emphasis on fundraising, it could dilute the bigger picture.


Oonagh Smyth is a senior adviser on governance and collaboration at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations

Linda Laurance is an independent charity governance consultant

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