The difficult balance trustees must strike on fundraising

Opinions in the sector vary as to how much the board should get involved in this important function

Just weeks after the death of the poppy seller Olive Cooke last year, Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, published a blog in which he said trustees should step up to the plate when it came to fundraising.

"Fundraisers are often unfairly having fingers pointed directly at them in this debate," it said. It should be remembered, it went on, that they had their activities overseen by trustee boards and chief executives.

In January, the pressure on trustees intensified after the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee concluded in its inquiry into charity fundraising practices that trustees were "ultimately responsible for every aspect of their charity's activity, including fundraising".

The Charity Commission released its updated CC20 guidance on fundraising in June, making it clear that trustees should have a direct involvement in fundraising strategy and know why the money their charity was seeking was required.

Then, in October, the NCVO, the Institute of Fundraising, the Charity Finance Group and Acevo published guidance for trustees about fundraising. Trustees and Fundraising: A Practical Handbook outlines 10 questions every trustee should be able to answer about their charity's fundraising (see right).

Data protection is key

According to Etherington, who spoke at the IoF's trustees and fundraising conference at which the handbook was launched, data protection is a key area trustees need to be aware of. "It's crucial that professionals and trustees understand what the reputational issues are in relation to data; what are 'must-dos', what are 'should dos' and what are 'nice to dos'," he said.

The Fundraising Regulator is currently producing new data-protection guidance to provide more clarity about the obligations of charities. Etherington also said that charity trustees should look at benchmark data on the complaints generated by different forms of fundraising and by different third-party agencies to help guide their strategic decisions.

Agencies and complaint levels were also a focus area for Bernard Jenkin, chair of the PACAC and a Conservative MP. At the conference, he said trustees should know who their contractors are and have evidence that they comply with the standards of behaviour and attitudes they expect from their own staff.

He said they should know how many complaints are generated by any direct mail and telephone canvassing activity as well as who complains and why. He said he even felt that trustees should be shown such complaints. Jenkin understood, he said, that it might seem churlish to ask "how are we raising all this money?" when times were good, but that trustees had to learn from the misfortunes of the charities the PACAC investigated last year - the NSPCC, Oxfam, the RSPCA and Save the Children - which he said had suffered significant reputational damage because fundraising executives had not wanted their trustees to know what they were up to.

He said there was no need for trustees to be fundraising experts, but trustees who had fundraising experience could provide more support to the board than those without this background. However, he added: "You don't really need to understand fundraising. The advantage of being a layperson is that you ask the questions that a professional wouldn't think of asking."

Pertinent questions

Not everyone agreed. Hannah-Polly Williams, a senior philanthropy manager at Oxfam, who is a trustee of a local branch of Samaritans, insisted that fundraisers could ask more pertinent questions about fundraising because of their expertise. Another advantage of appointing them to boards, she said, was that it demonstrated to fundraising teams that their craft was taken seriously, though she warned against trustees getting too close to senior fundraisers because this could make it tricky to hold them to account.

Samir Savant, festival director of the London Handel Festival and a trustee of the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, told the conference he had found it "troublesome and difficult" to be a fundraiser in arts charities, where there were no trustees with fundraising experience. "I think all fundraisers should be trustees and all boards should have fundraising representation," he said.

Other fundraisers who are also trustees include Meredith Niles, fundraising director at Marie Curie (a trustee of Booktrust); Paul Farthing, chief executive of fundraising at the Aspinall Foundation (the Fairtrade Foundation); and Simon Beresford, head of fundraising at All We Can (Spurgeons).

Don't shirk responsibility

For non-fundraising trustees, though, the Charity Commission has made it clear that shirking responsibility for this area is not an option. "You need to be sure your fundraising reflects your charity's values," says Sarah Atkinson, director of policy and communications at the Charity Commission. "And to provide the right oversight and challenge, you might need to take some training on fundraising.

"If your fundraising strategy is too complex for your trustees to understand, you might need a new strategy or new trustees - maybe both."

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