Trustees, Governance

Trustees are missing a trick

I wear many hats. A fundraiser, chief executive and trustee hat, to name but a few. But why do so few charity chief executives come up from the ranks of fundraising?

Generally speaking, many trustees and senior leaders still don’t widely recognise the importance of fundraising. They are missing a trick. This has implications for charities and civil society. It’s time to shift the dial in our sector both about the value of fundraising and fundraisers.

Fundraising is not all about the money

Thousands of people each year volunteer their time to fundraise for the causes that are important to them. This brings people and communities together.

Fundraising is about so much more than the money. It’s the main way that people see and hear about charities and show their support. Fundraising plays an important role in engaging people in a broader way. This contributes to building trust in charities and wider civil society.

The Institute of Fundraising recently released the discussion paper, Civil Society Futures: Reflections on fundraising’s role and contribution. It rightly says: “power, engagement, and connectivity that comes from fundraising is an absolutely essential part of civil society… To reduce fundraising to a financial transaction is to misunderstand everything that makes it worthwhile”.

Fundraisers as leaders of the future

As a sector we need strong, innovative, values-led leadership now more than ever. The world is changing fast. The skills of the past are not the skills we need to tackle the big sector and societal challenges of our time and in the future.

We’re fairly risk averse as a sector and most trustee boards recruiting a chief executive go for the ‘safe bet’ candidates, often from the operational or services side of the organisation. Finance directors are a popular choice.

When making choices we tend to go for the familiar, sometimes without realising it or questioning ourselves. It’s human nature. By doing this we perpetuate more of the same. It takes vision, courage and leadership to choose a different path and to see the big picture.

Why do fundraisers make great leaders?

Trustees and senior leaders are missing a trick by not seeing the true potential that fundraisers bring to their organisations and how they could be future leaders or even the organisation’s next chief executive.

We talk often about the financial sustainability of the sector, yet we fail to see that having a strategic mindset is critical to navigating this big challenge. Strategic thinking is a skill of every great fundraiser and one that all leaders should have.

Vision, communication and relationship building skills, the ability to motivate people, passion, creativity, focus, resilience and energy, are all attributes that impactful leaders need, and great fundraisers have aplenty. Indeed, fundraising is a profession and it takes real skill to be an effective fundraiser.

There is still a perception that anyone can ‘have a go at fundraising’. This is short-sighted and is holding us back as a sector. The Institute of Fundraising’s move to become a chartered body is a welcome step to help progress move away from this narrative.

Shifting the dial to make change happen

Many boards are often involved in fundraising activity, but not engaged at a strategic level. Trustees should be looking to see if there are skill gaps like this and addressing them e.g. by recruiting a trustee who has expertise in fundraising.

Trustees and senior leaders have the responsibility of setting the culture of an organisation and this includes a responsibility to shift the dial on the perception of fundraising and fundraisers. This is a leadership issue and it is our responsibility to make change happen in our charities.

As trustees and senior leaders, we role model the behaviours we want to see in the organisation. We should be making sure we are being inclusive of all disciplines in our charities. Too often I have seen organisations that work in silos and fundraising is out on a limb. It is our responsibility to develop a ‘one team’ culture and that everyone in the charity feels their contribution is equally valued, regardless of what function they do.

It’s also our responsibility to make sure we offer plenty of development opportunities, including cross-functional learning and development opportunities, for fundraisers, to develop their leadership skills so they are prepared to be senior leaders and future chief executives. More fundraisers will throw their hat into the leadership ring if we encourage them and offer opportunities.

Fundraising can make more of a positive difference

Fundraising and fundraisers can positively contribute more to the future of our charities and civil society as a whole.

We need more trustees and senior leaders now to recognise the value of, and shift their attitude towards, fundraising and fundraisers, so we can, as a sector, be fit for the future and be more impactful in addressing the big societal challenges ahead.

This article first appeared on the Institute of Fundraising website.