Trustees/Board Members: Best friends or worst enemies?

Those responsible for the governance of non-profits are often our worst enemies when they could be our best friends.  (I am referring to volunteer leaders)

Let me quote a poem from a great British poet – Roger Mc Gough. It is a short poem:

I wanna be the leader
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Promise? Promise?
Yippee. I’m the leader
I’m the leader

OK what shall we do?

Our enemies

But WHY are there “wanna be” board members who are not paid? Is it because it looks good on their CV to be a leader in a non-profit?  Such a role can change them from being perceived as a money grabbing, self-interested, member of a profit focused corporate to a good leader of a good cause?  The motivation is self-focused or even self-gratifying.   OK I know some are genuinely altruistic great leaders.

The biggest problem I encounter with board members is short termism due to their short period of engagement. The benefits of investing in a legacy campaign will be after they have gone (left the non-profit rather than being dead!). That is why investment is delayed and delayed and delayed. The second problem I experience is the total lack of understanding, and investing in, a balanced fundraising portfolio. The focus is on quick wins not the long game.

I meet a lot of board members. I present my “evidence” on the outcomes of legacy focus groups.

Typically these meetings might include the following questions asked by board members:

  • When are we going to get a return on our investment?
  • How much will the return on investment be?
  • If we are to invest in legacy fundraising what works and what does not?

My utterly brilliant answers (well in my view they are 100% honest, decent and truthful even if unhelpful) are:

  • I don’t know
  • I don’t know
  • I don’t know

I could be a lying devil and say:

  • 4 years
  • 1:40
  • Direct Marketing

The above answers are “bog standard” which Directors of Fundraising often WANT me to give. And they might be right in asking me to give these answers. After all, I could give the answers and the Board will have changed and they will have forgotten what I said in four years.

The problem I have is as follows:

I really really really wanna be honest and helpful. I really wanna be a useful consultant.

But it is not as simple as that.

Every cause has different legacy ROI

Every cause has different average legacy values

Every non-profit witnesses legacy income which is like a yo-yo

Every region and country is different due to demographics

Every culture tradition and religion has different legacy giving traditions

Will making traditions and habits vary and so do death taxes

90% of people will NEVER tell you what they are going to do and

VAST numbers will change their minds (more than once) because their financial/personal circumstances change in older age.

Given so many variables the only honest answer s are “I don’t know”

 Our best friends

A legacy is not a donation; it is an investment in the future driven by trust and confidence.

Supporters trust their charities and so leave a gift in their Will.

The best trustees I know of are those of the British Red Cross – backed by the truly superb CEO at the time (Sir Nick Young) and the dynamic, daring Director of Fundraising (Mark Astarita). The Trustees trusted the supporters to “do it” without asking stupid questions such as “How much would a TV legacy campaign raise?”

The British Red Cross Trustees trust Mark – and that is a it should be.

In an ideal world we need leaders who trust supporters as much as supporters trust “their“ charity. It seems to me that trust is often only one way.


Richard Radcliffe FinstF Cert specialising in legacies for over 30 years


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