Mark Flannagan: Why aren't more fundraisers on our boards?

Too often charities select business people as trustees when they really need people with experience of the charity sector, writes the chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer

Mark Flannagan
Mark Flannagan

A recent meeting of the Association of Chairs discussed at length the challenges of the newly regulated fundraising environment. The panel, of which I was part, suggested that trustees too often see fundraising as a function and not an integral part of the charity. There were lots of nods in agreement. The panel also raised the question of why charity staff, particularly fundraisers, are not trustees themselves. There seem to be too few fundraisers on charity boards.

I find it astonishing that fundraising is not hard-wired into charity boards. I don’t just mean consideration of budgets and targets. I mean that the board should be able to say it knows how its charity raises income, what methods and communications are being used to encourage donors to give money and how far it is willing to go to reach new audiences. The meeting seemed to confirm the assumption that boards don’t consider fundraising routinely or in depth. It may be the case that, when everything is going well, the board doesn’t worry about oversight. And when things go wrong, the board asks the fundraising team to do more, push harder and go further to close the income gap, and no one worries too much about how this is done.

So how do we fix this? I certainly think an annual review of fundraising methods – not just the financials but the actual day-to-day activities – is worth doing. Boards should take responsibility for every part of their charity and they should know exactly how their charity raises income. They should know if street fundraising is being used. They should know if prospective doors are being called up. They should ask the relevant and tough questions about all fundraising activities. That is not operational interference. It is correct oversight. I hope that the latest Charity Commission CC20 guidance will help, but I think we need to go further.

The second issue is how to get better understanding on boards of day-to-day charity challenges and operations. The simplest approach is to have more charity staff on boards. I know there are already many who serve, but I worry that there aren’t enough. The meeting seemed to indicate that this was the case. Why is this?

Is it because boards feel that, with paid staff, they don’t need to bring in charity operational expertise? Do they see their precious few board positions as better served by appointing business leaders and/or the great and the good? Is it because charity staff themselves see joining a board as affecting their work-life balance? If you work all day for a charity, do you want to spend your evenings arguing the same issues in a different setting? Whatever the reason, we need more charity staff providing the insight that only they can bring.

For fundraising, I think there is a particular temptation when seeking an expert voice on the board. Too often I see "marketeers" – business people with sales backgrounds – and so on being appointed to boards as a way of providing expertise on growth and development. But these people – however successful – can’t have unique and detailed experience of fundraising staff. Fundraising is an art and a science: it is based on hard-won knowledge of what works and what does not. You can’t bring that in from another sector.

So how do we change all of this? Who is responsible? I don’t think that we can go on as we are. If we do, we risk more reputational problems in the future that affect the ability of all of us to be successful.

Mark Flannagan is chief executive Beating Bowel Cancer. @MarkFlannCEO

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