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Should we expect trustees to donate?

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

Every trustee should feel passionate about the causes they support, but it’s crucial that organisations don’t conflate commitment with financial support

Should every trustee donate within their means, especially if they are then asking others to give?

Or is expecting trustees to donate a major barrier to recruiting trustees from a broader spectrum of society?

And does it pose a risk to balanced governance?

Choice is key

I don’t believe that trustees should ever be expected to donate. Trustees aren’t there to donate. They are there to lead the charity. So why would we add yet another barrier to a broader pool of talent coming on to our boards?

And yet many trustees, like me, are only too pleased to donate.

We should feel passionately about the cause we support through our trusteeship (if you don’t, you’re on the wrong board), so it feels natural to many trustees that they would want to make at least an occasional donation.

For me, it’s a tenner a month to a charity where I used to be a trustee and occasional donations to the charity where I’m currently a trustee. For others, it might be a larger donation.

But the key factor here is choice.

And trustees who choose to donate (and who are lucky enough to have that option open to them) might think about doing so quietly, so as to not upset the balance on a board.

The primary role of trustees

Making a donation should only ever be peripheral to a trustee’s core role of governing the charity.

If the chief role of an individual trustee has become to provide significant funding, they might serve the charity more appropriately in the role of ambassador or patron.

Charity consultant Elizabeth Balgobin points out a worrying trap here. “There are some trustees who think that giving is enough," she says. "‘I’ve donated so I don’t need to do the other hard work of governance.’"

But even where trustees who donate are pulling their weight governance-wise, a board that contains major donors can lead to challenges.

There is a risk that donor trustees can wield more power on the board than those that don’t give.

Michael Rogerson, who has served on 24 charity boards and advised many more, says: “My own experience of charity trustees is that a heavy donor on the board is unhelpful. The individual can believe they have more than an equal vote on the board and do not need to be a team player, and can destroy the ethos of the board.”

But what about family foundations? Or founders who have used their own resources to establish a charity? And the many charities which are wholly reliant on the financial contributions of their trustees to operate? The implications for board diversity

As a body of trustees, we have to accept that we are probably out of touch. Three-quarters of trustees in England and Wales are from households with an annual income above the national average, according to the report Taken on Trust from the Charity Commission for England and Wales.

I’ve seen trustee-giving expectations set at amounts that made my eyes water.

We can’t hope to encourage a broader set of people to become trustees if we’re expecting them to give amounts they can’t afford.

“An expectation of donating would further disenfranchise people who have skills, knowledge, experience and time, but not financial resources. Trusteeships should not become elite roles,” says Balgobin.

And what happens once you join a board and then you find that there is a giving expectation you were not expecting? It can be a major barrier to inclusion, with those who can’t give at the same level feeling like second-class trustees.

Daisy, who works as a trustee at a museum, says: “I do feel the odd one out on my board when it comes to the annual fundraiser auction (even the cost of the ticket, let alone bidding on anything). Lots of the board do, which is wonderful, but it isn’t really an affordable option for me.

“I choose to donate via a monthly direct debit according to my means, and of course give lots of my time, but I still tell myself that others are probably thinking I’ve not given the same.”

Trustees, if you are lucky enough to have the means to donate, that’s great.

But do so discreetly – and check that it doesn’t change your expectations of how much influence you should wield on the board.

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting on Board. For more on how Getting on Board supports inclusion of boards see our training programme.

This column first appeared on the Third Sector website.

Photo by on Unsplash


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