The Business of Boards

Since BOP and I started evaluating the Catalyst programme in 2013, we’ve worked with more than 500 arts organisations across the country and no matter what the size, location, or artform of the organisation, the number one thing everyone always asks for advice on is the challenge of getting their boards involved in fundraising.

And it is an important issue to be concerned about, as it is clear that the active engagement of boards in fundraising is essential to success. This holds true whether you are Tate or the regional literature development agency, Writing West Midlands. As one of our case study organisations, they took the challenge of Catalyst Evolve as one for the staff and board and by putting fundraising at the heart of the organisation, have brought about a culture change which has led to a number of new collaborations, including a partnership with Virgin Trains.

Facilitating networks is key, but as this case study illustrates, moving to a culture of fundraising is often broader and more fundamental than this. I often refer to fundraising as the only part of the operations of an organisation where the non / executive split doesn’t apply; Boards need to be actively engaged in fundraising in a way they aren’t anywhere else. This represents an important shift in mindset in itself. And of course, when I am supporting organisations and their Boards in making this transition, I always refer to the changes in UK Charity Law which require that fundraising can no longer simply be delegated to the staff team.

However, I also always try to help organisations in understanding that this can be a sensitive transition. As professionals working in the sector, we all know how challenging the move away from public funding can be. Our board members are volunteers, many of whom were pillars of campaigns over the years to resist this loss, so for many the move to a culture of fundraising remains a challenging idea.

We need to take time to share information about the landscape, the challenges we face and to discuss the charitable nature of the arts and to listen to, and address the responses of, our boards, rather than simply trying to force a change. A great example of this investment based approach comes from another of our case study organisations, Manchester’s Z-arts, who have had great success with corporates as a result.

Once these issues are addressed, I’ve often found that a reluctance to get involved with fundraising comes down to a lack of experience and tools. Our boards are made up of eminent individuals, so we tend to assume they have the resources they need. But as my experience as Development Director of the Natural History Museum illustrates – when I was able to put together a ‘fantasy football’ Development Council which included Sir David Attenbrough, Richard Dawkins, Lord Winston and many others – that doesn’t mean that they knew had to fundraise. Our respect for boards means that we can’t imagine that there is anything that these remarkable people don’t know how to do.

More recently, I have started to wonder if there is an even bigger step-back we need to take to address these issues, because the boards of arts organisations sometimes seem less involved in the strategic direction of the organisation than in other sectors.

Whilst it is heartening to see our boards have become focused on the need to ensure organisations are ‘professionally’ run, this can disrupt the balance between the role of the organisation as a charity delivering public benefit and the need to ensure financial resilience. Charities need fiscal responsibility at their heart, but they aren’t the same as businesses. Businesses exist to make profit and to perpetuate themselves, whilst charities exist to address a need. Money is only the servant of the work we are trying to do, not the end in itself. And whilst the unresolvable human need for art means that that this need will never be fully met, we must also set ourselves goals in all these areas if we are to ensure our success as charities and not just as businesses.

I have a single simple recommendation: involve your board in writing your Business Plan and develop a plan that will robustly support your organisation and goes beyond your reporting requirements to Arts Council alone so you have a shared idea of what the charity is seeking to achieve and an appreciation that money is simply the means for enabling this. By being involved in the purpose of the charity our boards can feel more comfortable with fundraising and maybe, even able to ask for support on your behalf.

Caroline McCormick  |  February 2019