Fundraising is definitely a matter for the board, says Jon Scourse

Too many trustee boards don't understand the realities of fundraising and fail to address gaps in their collective knowledge, argues the chair of the Youth Adventure Trust

Jon Scourse
Jon Scourse

Recent events following the fallout from the Olive Cooke case have rocked the sector and we are now very much under press and public scrutiny. This begs the question – how many charities have skilled fundraisers on their boards? Remarkably, very few have and such representation remains extremely rare. This is despite fundraising becoming highly professional, complex and the "engine room" of any charity – with potentially high exposure and reputational risk.

Fundraising is misunderstood. For example, the media and public perception is that costs incurred in raising funds are wasteful and even that staff should not be paid at all. For some, the word "fundraising" conjures an image of old ladies rattling tins on a wet Saturday; for others it might be resentment that this is a "cost".

This dysfunctional perspective prevails within some boards. Finance and operations are likely to be well represented by trustees with appropriate experience, but when it comes to fundraising there is a chasm in terms of specialist knowledge. This is dangerous because major decisions are being made, sometimes without the head of fundraising being present to argue the case for support.

Fundraising is complex. The range of activities is immense, including sophisticated models for committed giving, social media development, mass-scale events, crowdfunding and charity of the year partnerships to name just a few. These are specialist areas in their own right and require highly professional management.

Sometimes trustees are guilty of expecting immediate and stunning fundraising results, while resisting investment for the critical staffing and tools needed, such as database systems, branding, events development, awareness building and robust income processing. It is also not widely understood that – like a new business start-up – it takes time. Investment in fundraising needs at least three years to mature and losses are likely in the early stages, but all too often the trustees lose patience and confidence. The sector is littered with aborted projects and damaged fundraisers, often stood down midway through a period of critical development.

Another area of misunderstanding is the obsession with fundraising costs. Net income for charitable purposes is far more important. For example, if a higher level of investment yielded considerably more net income, why be so cautious about the cost ratios? What is better – an extra £500,000 for charitable use at a higher costs ratio, or the status quo with a lower ratio?

The sector is full of underperforming charities that are held back by the reticence of trustees to invest in income generation and developing new opportunities. The focus is control of costs – and not taking risks. The preservation of the assets usually takes a far higher priority than their exploitation in developing new and imaginative ideas. The modern trustee board should be designed to have a balance of skills – and not to be a collection of well-meaning individuals with time and enthusiasm but limited expertise. Fundraising should have a voice and the presence of at least one trustee with a good knowledge of this complex area is now more important than ever before.

At the Youth Adventure Trust, we were able to design a new trustee board from scratch in 2012. This replaced the previous five trustees, most of whom had served since 1992. This was a great opportunity to review our objectives. We identified a range of skills sets and representational needs. These covered fundraising, legal, marketing, finance, experience of working with young people, volunteering and business experience. All of these positions have been appointed.

We welcomed and even hunted potential new trustees. For example, several had previously been involved in corporate challenge events and had raised significant sums for the charity as individuals; others might have been volunteers but had specialist skills such as marketing and fundraising. As a result, the average age of the trustees – excluding me, the chair – is in the mid-40s, with the youngest being only 30. They are all in full-time work and many have young families.

This has resulted in a highly dynamic group, all bringing their own experience to bear. This was demonstrated with a rebrand in 2014 from the Mitchemp Trust, led by a sub-committee including those trustees with marketing, commercial and fundraising experience – with added support from volunteers with design skills. As a result, the rebrand was achieved at no cost to the charity and has been highly successful. Within four years income has doubled despite tough economic conditions. The most important factor has been a balanced approach that is driven by the need to develop the charity equally with the need to focus on costs control and stewardship of funds.

In such a challenging climate, the inclusion of specialist fundraising knowledge on charity trustee boards should be firmly on the agenda.

Jon Scourse is chair of the Youth Adventure Trust and former chief executive of the Fundraising Standards Board

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