Martin Edwards: Chief execs should never wash their hands of fundraising

The charity sector is belatedly learning that many areas of fundraising can benefit from input from the top, writes our columnist

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

A chairman recently asked my advice about why his charity’s fundraising was struggling, despite having a popular cause. He felt it was all down to its fundraising director, but it emerged in conversation that the chief executive took no part in fundraising.

Whose responsibility would it be, I asked him, if the charity fell short of its income targets? The fundraising director’s, he replied without hesitation. When I asked him why on earth wouldn’t it be the chief executive’s responsibility, like all other areas of the charity’s performance, he got the point.

Most charity chief executive know that if they are not from a services background, they still need to ensure that the charity’s services are well run. They know this requires their involvement with commissioners or partners, quality audits, and some direct contact with service users.

Yet before I was a chief executive, I worked as a fundraising director with some chief executives from service backgrounds who had little or no involvement in fundraising. They trusted me to get on with it, and it was my lookout if it went poorly. I thought it was a good enough arrangement. I now realise I was wrong.        

Our sector is belatedly learning that many areas of fundraising can benefit from a chief executive’s inspection. But there are also certain types of potential supporters who expect to see, and need to believe in, the top person: major donors and patrons. Wealth and fame put a target on their back, so they may also duck any approach from someone with the word fundraising in their job title.

I work closely with our philanthropy manager. In fact, I spend so much time at her desk that it may have started some rumours. But I hope my colleagues realise that I am the lead contact with several current and potential major supporters. Some of those supporters have raised us millions of pounds.

The chief executive must scrutinise fundraising in the same way that they would the services; front some public fundraising events; and enlist and look after some of the charity’s highest-value supporters and patrons. All but the most useless chief executives can make a big difference. They will also find out that this fluffy thing called fundraising isn’t easy.     

I advised the chairman to set his chief executive some expectations to enlist and steward a small number of major supporters. I also suggested that she should frequently ask the fundraising director how else she could help, and listen carefully to why some income areas were struggling.

What you don’t want, of course, is for the chief executive to be the only contact with those supporters. Personality cults are dangerous. If the chief executive leaves, or is let go acrimoniously, no major supporter should leave with them. But truly successful fundraising charities are ones where the chief executive leads, and where everyone is attuned to fundraising opportunities, including the board. 

So if you’re a chief executive who leaves others to look after the fundraising - however much confidence you have in them - it’s your job to bring something to the party. After all, if the charity runs out of money, it’s no-one else’s responsibility. It’s yours.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of Julia’s House, the Dorset and Wiltshire children’s hospice


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