Matthew Sherrington: Do boards put their money where their mouth is?

If trustees don't think their charity is worth a donation, why should anyone else? Our online guest columnist puts the question in Trustees' Week

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

I recently became a trustee. Of MAG (the Mines Advisory Group), since you’re asking. It is an impressive, Nobel Peace Prize-winning charity (how many of those do you know?) that clears landmines and weapons out of old war zones, making land safe so people can get back to living their lives again without the risk of getting their limbs blown off. Brave and awesome stuff. 

And I promptly set up a direct debit. Modest, but an above-average amount for me. Obviously because it’s a great cause, but also because as a trustee and ambassador for the charity, I should. Every trustee should. Especially in Trustees' Week.

I’m sure most trustees support their charities in various significant ways, as well as giving a not inconsiderable amount of time. And many probably give too. But I know that not all do.

I spent a few years fundraising in the US, where it is understood that fundraising is a large part of what the board is there to do. The same goes for the chief executive, who spends perhaps a third of his or her time networking with major donors. It has been characterised as a "give or get" culture – an expectation that you give the charity for whom you are a board member your "largest gift", or you open your address book to bring money to the charity through your contacts. That’s not all there is to it, of course, but it’s a strong ethic. My own US non-profit wasn’t quite in that league, but by the time I left 100 per cent of the board were giving (OK, I did march my trainee fundraisers in to my last board meeting to mop up the stragglers).

There’s been a lot of interest in the UK in this US approach to major donor networking. I tried introducing board-level support for fundraising on my return to the UK, to be told in no uncertain terms that "that might be the way they do things in America, but in the UK, boards are for governance". Fair enough - our philanthropic cultures are very different. NSPCC’s Full Stop Appeal is perhaps the best example of giving it a go, successfully creating volunteer boards of those who could "give or get", separate from their governance structure. But as a trustee, if you don’t think your charity is worth the investment of your own money, why should anyone else?

And that’s my point. The US approach has its drawbacks, particularly with regard to diversity, and making sure you have the right mix of professional skills to support the business of the charity. But it shouldn’t stop every trustee giving something.

The same goes if you work for a charity. People might say they give well above the day job, thanks very much, just as trustees give their time. But it’s not about you and what you do that matters. As a representative or ambassador, what matters is the example you set that others can follow.

Trustees also have a massive responsibility, as part of governance, to understand and support fundraising. It is, after all, all about the money. The charity sector is littered with stories of boards getting this wrong. The chair of a community charity I was giving some support to scuppered its fundraising efforts when he declared: "I know our supporters; they won’t like it and we don’t want to bother them. And we don’t need the money right now." Enough said.

A national charity in recent years turned the tap off supporter recruitment because its board was antipathetic to fundraising and didn’t understand the importance of investment. The consequences were disastrous, and all its most experienced fundraisers moved elsewhere. (The charity deserves to remain nameless because it is busy turning things around now.) Another gave up much of its major donor relationships when a new chief executive didn’t think it was his job to spend time with them.

It’s no surprise there is stress and tension around the question of income. Boards and fundraisers don’t always get along. So what’s a trustee to do? Take the time to understand the fundraising, at least to a reasonable extent. Get that it doesn’t happen in isolation. Get that people need reasons to give, but will doso if you have a good story to tell. Challenge your fundraisers by all means, but support them; don’t pull the rug from under their feet by treating it as the embarrassing, money-grubbing end of the business. It is a tough job to inspire ordinary people to support your charity. So make sure they are inspired in turn and know they have your support.

Finally, give. Go on, if you’re a trustee or work for a charity, put your money where your mouth is. 

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant in fundraising and strategic communications. Follow him on Twitter

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