The Fundraiser - Practical advice and insight for the charity sector

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5 steps to securing top rate trustees

One in four smaller charities – and one in five larger charities – is struggling to survive. Michelle Wright explains how an excellent board of trustees can make all the difference…

Would you build a team from only friends and family without ensuring they had the right skills and knowledge? Would you allow someone to continue in their role with no proper assessment of performance? Would you disregard recruitment that represents social, demographic and ethnic diversity? Unfortunately, the reality for many of the UK’s charities is that this is standard practice when it comes to appointing trustees.

Fundraising responsibility

To add to the charities’ woes, many individuals on trustee boards don’t consider that fundraising falls within their role. If we are going to ensure a thriving charity sector, we must to change this. Fundraising is everyone’s responsibility.

At the very least, trustees need to understand the fundraising needs of their organisation and their role in supporting entrepreneurial strategies and development. Trustees must become assets in the fundraising stakes. And, like any good asset, trustees need to be nurtured and supported in relation to fundraising.

So how do we take the fear out of fundraising for trustees? Fundraising should be high up the agenda of every trustees’ meeting. It cannot be the last item when a meeting has run out of time and energy. A key role of trustees is to lead cultural change in the prioritisation and understanding of the fundraising strategy. It is not just necessarily about asking for money but rather creating a supportive culture where fundraising is an embedded strategy.

1. Open recruitment

To build a successful team of trustees that will drive your charity forward, you shouldn’t leave it to chance. Yet it is estimated that over half of all trustees are recruited through friends and colleagues. And, according to the charity Getting on Board, only 8% of the 90,000 or so available charity roles are even advertised in the UK.

This would be unacceptable in the private sector – not just because it smacks of nepotism but also because it fails to draw in the diverse group of people, from a variety of professional backgrounds, that you need. Although advertising jobs and using recruitment agencies can be expensive, charities need to take recruitment seriously. Make use of social media and free or low-cost advertisements to ensure that your vacancies reach the widest possible pool of candidates.

It is dispiriting that so many trustee boards are built in the image of the chair through a ‘tap on the shoulder’ to their friends and colleagues. Conduct interviews for any new trustees and look for diverse representation on your board – including some people who represent your charity’s beneficiaries so they have ‘walked in the shoes’ of the people you’re trying to help. You want to recruit for skills, of course, but also for individual insight as well as personal and professional experience.

2. Train your trustees

It always surprises me that some trustees accept a role without any knowledge of what is entailed. Trustees have legal and financial responsibilities in relation to your charity and they need to be clear about what’s expected of them and what they are signing up to. Just because a trustee has been successful in their day job, it doesn’t necessary tally that they’ll know what to do in the role on your board.

It’s imperative that trustees receive training, that they know their responsibilities as clearly outlined by the Charity Commission and that they receive a proper induction. Make sure that their role within the fundraising function is clear and be specific about how they can help.

If a trustee is not willing to build their knowledge of their responsibilities then they should be resigned – it really is that simple. Training for trustees is ongoing. They’ll need to keep their skills fresh and up to date if they are going to be of benefit to the organisation.

3. Monitor the board’s impact

Your trustees have an important role to play and should have goals so that they are putting their skills, contacts and insight to the best use. Give each of your trustees three objectives or goals to achieve and monitor their progress. Once one objective has been completed, add to the list so they always have a list of three. 

Consider using a traffic light signal to let them know when they must be at an event – e.g. red must attend, amber could attend, green would be nice if they attended but not essential. This helps trustees with extremely busy lives recognise that their presence is not always needed but on occasions can be vital.

4. Stick to your trustee terms

All charities should be publicly accountable for their recruitment procedures and for declaring conflicts of interest. Trustee terms must be strictly adhered to with no exceptions and with proper assessments of performance of individual trustees and the board as a whole.

Every charity needs fresh input and new thinking to ensure the ongoing health of the charity sector. Whatever the individual’s input, reputation or popularity, don’t extend the trustee terms – it’s at odds with the basic principles of effective leadership.

5. Keep communication channels open

Encourage open dialogue between staff and your trustees. Complaining about each other is an occupational hazard unless you allow people to engage with each other and work out how they best work together. All members of the team benefit from outside inspiration.

Consider bringing in external speakers who are independent experts on your charity’s key purposes. Lessons can be learned from experts within your field and outside of it, both by the trustees and the staff.

If we are going to prevent the collapse of any more of the UK’s charities, especially at a time when their efforts are more in demand than ever, we need to take the recruitment, training and management of trustees seriously. Getting the best board and keeping them motivated can make all the difference.

Michelle Wright is Founder and CEO of Cause4

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