Getting Your Board on Board Part One: Towards a New Definition of Charity

An organisation set up to provide help and raise money for those in need. The body of organisations viewed collectively as the object of fundraising or of donations. The voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.

When you read the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘charity’ it’s not hard to understand why few in the UK perceive the arts in such a way. It’s the concept of ‘need’ which I would suggest is a particular barrier; it denotes things essential to survival; such as food & water, healthcare and education.

The perception of whether the arts and culture are essential is partly related to the period of history you are living in; the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks or the Romans certainly placed a high value on culture. In today’s world cultural value is too often commodified and perceived as a luxury; not as an essential part of a world we want to live in. Culture is often of course only appreciated in retrospect or when a nation is under pressure; the pleasing and much quoted line from Churchill about refusing to cut the arts during the second world war, “or what are we fighting for?” was never actually said, but what is certain is that when Putin allegedly dismissed Britain as “a small island no one listens to”, David Cameron responded with the retort, “Britain is an island that helped to abolish slavery, that has invented most of the things worth while inventing, including every sport currently played around the world, that still today is responsible for art, literature and music that delights the entire world.” Apparently Putin subsequently denied ever making the remark.

World leaders aside, those of us working with the boards of arts organisations on a day to day basis know that they commonly struggle with the idea of the organization as a charity, and this has wide ranging implications, foremost amongst them their reluctance to engage in fundraising and to lead the way by making a gift themselves.

The definition of a charitable body is more helpful in addressing these issues: A charity is an organisation that is recognised in the law as having exclusively charitable purposes. It must not be run for profit, and any income it receives must be spent on helping it to achieve its charitable purposes.

This definition also opens up the need for Trustees to understand their role and legal responsibilities, which have evolved considerably in recent years. I would say far less than half the Boards I encounter actually really do understand the responsibilities they have signed up to.

There is an undoubted need for an enhanced approach to the recruitment, appointment and induction of Trustees across the cultural sector. If this all sounds remarkably like the Board of a charity you are working with, then what can you do about it?

What is certain is that saying you’re a charity and that you’d like everyone to make a gift, won’t be the solution. If the culture of an organisation is in denial of it’s identity, then a more involved process will be required. This is of course all much easier in the US where the separation of state and subsidy is more absolute and the absence of a traditional class hierarchy makes it into a commodity in itself. The arts have thrived in this environment, which is further supported by tax relief. But in the UK, where we are fighting to hold onto the limited state funding we have and we cling to our traditions in a rapidly changing economic landscape, the challenge is a rather different one.

Essentially, like all strategies, the approach must suit the personality and style of the organisation, but there are a few simple steps I would recommend considering:

Staff should lead the way

Working through how the staff feel about the organisation, what they believe it’s strengths to be, the difference it makes to people’s lives and what it means to be a charity, is an essential process. Giving people time and space to understand and adopt that narrative is a process which can revitalise an organisation that has lost it’s sense of purpose and redefine one which is already focused. This process will not only reinvigorate and make engagement more purposeful, it will also create an atmosphere and culture for the Board to respond to. At the Natural History Museum the Board made gifts after every member of the fundraising team made a pledge to do so.

Time, space, reality

Understanding the question of being a charity board isn’t just about fundraising; a workshop, or several dedicated sections of Board meetings are usually required to explore the legal responsibilities of being a Trustee, including the fundraising needs of the organisation. Giving the Board time and space to ask questions and explore ideas is essential to enabling them to developing their understanding of the organisation

Understand what kind of charity you are

Charities address problems; that is their fundamental role. Some of those problems are happily unresolvable, such as the provision of great art. It’s important that the Board understands the contribution the organisation is making to society, who the beneficiaries are and the difference the work is making. And don’t be afraid to shout about your success as an organisation. This process will help the Board to not only develop a framework for decision making about the direction of the charity, it will help them to consider why they personally find meaning in it too.

Fundraising is the outcome of a process

These conversations should naturally lead to a discussion about board giving. Try and move to the question of giving without having established why people are already giving time and energy to the board and you won’t be successful. Essential within these discussions is the principle of what I refer to (with my C of E upbringing) as ‘Widow’s Might’. The lesson of the widow’s mite is presented in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4)’; Trustees should give in lots of ways, money is just one of them and gifts should be proportionate.

Celebrate success

Publicly celebrating support from the staff and board is good for moral and can create a domino effect.

Set the path for the future

It’s also important to recognise that the chances are you won’t convince everyone on the first time of asking. Celebrating success and retaining a commitment to Board giving as part of any future recruitment, ideally written into Board job descriptions, is essential to enabling a change of culture over time.

Now all you have to do is help your Trustees to feel comfortable asking for support. I will address how you might go about that in Part Two.

Caroline McCormick  |  April 2015