Richard Gomes’ comments at NPC’s Leading Impact conference in March shone a light on a sector that rarely hits the headlines. The efficiency (or otherwise) of trusts and foundations and the extent to which they are able to judge whether they are doing a good job largely depends on how they are led and what executive and non-executives believe they are there to do.
Yet there is surprisingly little public discussion about what is needed to lead a trust or foundation. Of course, the sector is hugely diverse and making generalisations is a risky business. Leadership dynamics and accountabilities differ for small, family trusts compared to corporate foundations. But our experience of working with the sector in all its forms over the past 14 years suggests that some common skills and behaviours are increasingly important across the spectrum.
The courage to put purpose before tradition and sustainability
Today’s leaders identify a growing need to realign their organisations in response to 21st century needs. This means having the skills and confidence to engage constructively with trustees and stakeholders to create an identity that values the past whilst telling a compelling story about the future.
Fundamentally, this is about re-examining how mission is being delivered and being honest about whether current practices, structures and a temptation to focus on organisational sustainability are getting in the way.
The confidence to take risks and embrace failure
An emphasis on recognised ways of measuring impact and demonstrating value can feel like a challenge to traditions that many trusts and foundations hold dear: the freedom to use their instincts and invest for the longer-term. The demand for leaders who can build teams who are able to make smart choices about how to measure success and foster cultures which promote a healthy attitude to risk and failure is growing.
Skills for collaboration and influence
Many organisations now recognise their role in going beyond traditional grant-giving to broker solutions through alliances. Chief executives and trustees with cross-sector networks and partnership-building experience are increasingly in demand. Whilst many trusts and foundations recognise the value of using their insights for influencing change, the skills to manage and market this information effectively do not yet seem to be widespread.
Ambassadorial and reputation management skills
The public and media are waking up to the huge investment that comes through trusts and foundations and are taking more of an interest in who organisations are and how they work. The stereotypes of unassuming administrators, diligently carrying out the good works of Lords and Ladies bountiful are fading to be replaced by confident, external-facing and politically astute communicators who are able to articulate social value and act as ambassadors for projects and partnerships.