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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy

Should trustees on arts boards always be expected to give a donation, as is commonly the case in the US? Michelle Wright weighs up the pros and cons of this thorny issue.

Photo of wine tasting evening

There is nothing in the Charity Commission CC20 guidelines for trustees that outlines that trustees should give money as well as support fundraising. However, in this tough financial climate – and with more and more competition for funds – support and engagement in the fundraising effort by trustees can be the difference between success and failure in the delivery of fundraising strategies.

I’ve recently been at board meetings where the trustees that are not giving have been publicly named and shamed

The expectation about board giving comes mostly from our American colleagues. American charities are much more explicit about what they expect from their trustees: patronage, generosity and connections. To be a trustee of a major arts organisation in the US requires serious six figure plus patronage.

Yet in our endearing Britishness, UK charities find it an awkward issue to discuss. And in my own practice I see much bad practice. We’ve probably all witnessed a clumsy ask by a fundraiser or CEO to trustees.

I’ve recently been at board meetings where the trustees who are not giving have been publicly named and shamed. I’ve also seen a major arts board spring the expectation of a £10,000 donation on trustees (or to raise the same sum) without any prior discussion or preparation. Similarly, a dance organisation managed to alienate the whole staff team by committing trustees and staff to all become friends of the organisation - and then trustees seemed to completely forget that obligation.

The polarising debate

As in any polarising debate, there are arguments for and against.

The pros are that trustees demonstrate publicly their passion and commitment to the charity. Giving time is one thing, but supporting financially reveals a different sort of allegiance. It gives a huge vote of confidence and support to the charity’s overall fundraising effort. It also affords trustees the chance to experience at first hand how that charity engages with supporters. The mystery shopper experience can be a superb way to oversee your fundraising effort. However, probably most powerfully, being a donor yourself is a formidable tool when meeting other funders and asking others to donate.

The cons usually revolve around the role of governance. The Charity Commission 2017 report Taken on Trust outlines that in about 80% of charities, trustees play both a governance and an executive role, estimating that the annual value of the time that trustees spend on their duties is £3.5bn. This is a huge investment in time already and leads to a school of thought that trustees shouldn’t have to give as well.

Additionally, it can lead to conflicts of interest if the trustees that give have expectations about how their money will be used, with the potential that they then wield undue influence that can imbalance board decision-making. Trustees that are also givers can feel they have more authority than others. Additionally, executive teams that are scared to lose funding from trustees can inadvertently create a board dynamic that becomes unhealthy.

At a time when we are desperate to ensure better board diversity, it can also be a source of tension if some members of the board are able to flash their cash and others can’t. If trustee giving is encouraged it should be done within one’s means and managed sensitively. It certainly shouldn’t preclude access to trustees without means.

Useful guidelines

As part of our role within the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy programme, we want to encourage a better culture and attitude in relation to trustee giving. As such, we apply the following guidelines:

  • Decide your policy – don’t leave it as a grey area. And choose your chair carefully. Too many boards lack clarity about their policy on trustee giving and funders are now beginning to ask as a matter of routine. Decide as a board if all trustees should give, or if the governance role is to support fundraising but not to give. And make sure that you check your chair’s perception. It is hard to encourage all board giving if the chair is fundamentally opposed.
  • Manage confidentially via the chair according to means. One of my favourite practices is when the board becomes a major donor as a collective. The chair manages a process completely confidentially whereby board members give according to their means. For some trustees it might be £5 and for others £500, but what’s important is that the board is engaged as a team.
  • We all do something small. The sum donated can be irrelevant. If the expectation that all trustees give at the level of friends or members, then it’s a level playing field and the board demonstrates that they are all engaged in the fundraising effort.
  • We know how we can support the fundraising by individual and collective actions. All too often trustees want to help more but they are not given specific actions about how exactly they can help. Making it absolutely clear what the tasks are can be a huge relief for busy trustees, be it reading funding applications or making introductions to other donors.
  • Make it fun and play to trustee strengths. One of the most successful fundraising trustees I know was at a loss as to how he could help his charity’s fundraising. When we focussed on his passions, one of which was wine, he was away. He now runs a yearly wine-tasting evening for an arts charity which is a hot ticket on the annual events calendar.

And finally, if trustees do give, then whether we like it or not we enter a donor relationship. Too often executive teams forget to thank trustees in the way they would thank traditional donors. As with any donor, we need to treat trustees right. If they give, then thank, thank and thank again.

Michelle Wright is Chief Executive of Cause4 and Programme Director of Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy.
Tw @artsfundraising

This article is part of a series of articles sponsored and contributed by Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy.

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