Opinion: Third Voice - Don't waste the leadership potential of fundraisers

Why do so few charity chief executives come from the ranks of fundraising?

Most trustee boards recruiting a chief executive consider the 'safe bet' candidates to be those from the operational side: programme directors are the most popular choice to lead aid agencies, as are nursing or medical directors for healthcare charities. So is there a glass ceiling preventing many top fundraisers from reaching this level?

The two key skills chief executives need are the ability to motivate people and to define directions - neither of which require operational backgrounds. Moreover, the most influential decisions they ever make are not about programmes but concern recruitment: finding people with the expertise and personality to lead the key sections. The private sector knows this. It recruits high flyers as chief executives regardless of the business they come from - people who begin with the end in mind and then organise and inspire people to achieve it.

Limited by the glass ceiling, many talented fundraisers leave and end up marketing widgets in Milton Keynes. This is a pity, because top fundraisers have crucial leadership skills. They are risk-takers who challenge rather than accept the status quo. They are great communicators and networkers. They know how vital it is for different departments to interact and they are by definition results-oriented.

So how can fundraisers demonstrate their potential to lead?

Read widely about leadership. Train people throughout the charity in generic skills such as personal effectiveness, goal-setting, strategic thinking and communication. Help define the charity's values, typically through working groups or awaydays. Values are the principles, standards and culture expected of everyone, which should then inform the content of inductions, one-to-ones and appraisals.

Fundraisers are paid to understand people's motivations, so use this skill in managing people.

Finally, show at the interview that you understand trustee expectations.

Combine flair with appearing reflective and sober. Address the key skills of motivating others and defining directions. Talk about people and teams, how to nurture and develop them and how to steer a shared achievement.

Show that you have shaped the heart and soul of the charity.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of Julia's House, the Dorset Children's Hospice, and writes for the leadership site trustedleader.org.

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