Valerie Morton: All trustees have responsibility for fundraising

The whole board has to take an interest in fundraising and support trustees with specialist knowledge to understand governance

Valerie Morton
Valerie Morton

Not a day goes by without charities being in the spotlight about one issue or another. Over the past three years, fundraising governance has faced particular scrutiny.

Perhaps because fundraising has been out of the comfort zone or area of expertise for many trustees, the focus has often been more on balancing the books rather than the fundraising strategy (if there was one) and ways of working. But now the role of Fundraising Regulator is understood and respected and fundraising has climbed its way up the risk register to at or near the top.

It is probably not surprising therefore that fundraising experience is a sought-after requirement in many trustee recruitment processes.

So that solves the problem then doesn’t it? Well, no, on at least two counts.

First (and I am speaking from experience here), when a specific trustee has a certain background there is a tendency to fall into the trap of thinking that things are under control in that area: "If they’re happy, I’m happy." There is always the assumption that this trustee is on the case and because of their expertise they are the best person to be monitoring, signing off and dealing with that area. Of course, it is valuable to have some inside knowledge of a subject to help inform governance discussions, but EVERY trustee has the same governance responsibilities, and those responsibilities cannot be delegated to colleagues.

The innocent question from someone not used to the day-to-day language of, say, fundraising can open up really healthy discussion and challenge. Fundraising reports need to be written in a way that provides genuine assurance to the board as a whole rather than something that is discussed by a sub-committee and then just rubber-stamped. So the problem here is that a well-intentioned desire to recruit a trustee with fundraising experience can end up backfiring.

Second, we need to look at this from the perspective of the fundraiser. If someone is appointed to be a trustee they first and foremost need to understand governance and how this differs from the executive function they have been used to. If they are looking for their first trustee position, a vacancy that specifies that experience might seem perfect. However, we all naturally give most attention to things we know about or are good at, so what happens is this person is dominant during the fundraising section of a board meeting, when they are naturally feeling most comfortable, then keeps quiet during other discussions. It takes a lot of confidence and experience to feel able to question and challenge in an area where someone else is deemed to be the expert – whether legal, HR, service delivery, finance or other leadership issues.

So the message to charities planning to recruit trustees with specific fundraising experience is, first of all, well done on recognising the need to upskill the board. However, the work does not stop there. To avoid the unintended consequences I have described make sure that, if the trustee with fundraising experience is new to a governance role, they are supported (through induction, development opportunities and mentoring) in being an effective trustee before being pigeonholed as "the fundraising trustee".

One sign of a well-functioning board is that an observer cannot immediately tell which member of staff or which trustee has which background. Governance is all about gaining assurance and having a range of tools to support that  process.When recently I started writing down the assurance tools I use as a trustee or non-executive director, the list I thought would run to about five or 10 tools ended up at 23. A trustee brought on board because of their fundraising experience needs to understand these governance tools to avoid becoming, in effect, a free fundraising consultant.

Valerie Morton is a fundraiser and consultant

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