Altruism just one part of a trustee's motivations, says International Rescue Committee head of philanthropy

Hannah-Polly Williams tells an Institute of Fundraising event that assuming people become trustees totally selflessly makes it harder to engage with potential board members

Hannah-Polly Williams
Hannah-Polly Williams

The sector’s expectation that people will become trustees purely for altruistic reasons is making it harder to engage with potential recruits, according to Hannah-Polly Williams, head of philanthropy and partnerships at the International Rescue Committee.

Speaking in central London this morning at an Institute of Fundraising event on the role of fundraisers on charity boards, Williams agreed with fellow speaker Meredith Niles, executive director of fundraising and engagement at Marie Curie, who said trusteeship was a cost-effective form of professional development.

Williams said that although altruistic motivations were important, they were only one part of the mix.

She said she wanted to challenge the sector to consider "why we continue to push this rhetoric around the need to be the goody two-shoes, that everything needs to be for purely altruistic reasons".

She said: "I think it makes it harder for us to interact with other sectors if we continue to push that rhetoric of motivation and altruism."

It was absolutely acceptable for people to apply for trusteeships for career reasons, Williams said.

"That’s fine, providing the output of what they do for that board is of excellent quality and the organisation the charity benefits from having that person involved," she said.

She said it was not for those recruiting to make judgements about people’s motivations.

"I think the more we as a sector can embrace a different mindset and not be purist about why people do things, the more we will interact better with other sectors," Williams said.

"And the more we see a trends for the blurring of public and private, or NGO and public and so on, the better we’re going to be placed to engage in that if we come off our high horse a little bit."

Ian Joseph, chief executive of Trustees Unlimited, said that in his experience trustees were more likely to be committed to the charity if they were motivated by its cause.

He said he often told potential trustees that becoming a trustee was like doing a PhD: it was a long-term commitment that would have its rough patches.

"So if you’re going to join a board there needs to be something, an empathy that on a cold January night, when it’s snowing and there’s a finance committee, gets you off a sofa in front of EastEnders," said Joseph. "There’s got to be some connection or you will not sustain yourself through it."

Williams said it was important that there was responsibility and accountability and that people were not becoming trustees in order to whitewash a corporate reputation, but she said the connection that got someone off the sofa was no one else’s business.

During the same event, Niles said she hoped the sector would reach a point where every charity that engaged in public fundraising would consider it the norm to have a fundraiser on their board.

"No major board would not have a lawyer or an accountant on their board," she said. "There’s an expectation that their professional expertise needs to be represented on the table.

"I think we ought as a sector to get to a point where the fundraising professional expertise is similarly regarded."

Niles said she believed trustees had gone from a situation of "benign neglect" of fundraising before the 2015 fundraising scandals to one of "panic" and wanting to be overly involved, so having a fundraiser on the board would help to modulate that impulse.

Peter Lewis, chief executive of the IoF, said he believed there was some work his organisation could be doing to ensure the relationship between a fundraising board member and the director of fundraising was as well understood and regarded in the sector as the relationship between finance directors and treasurers.

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