10 Essentials of an Effective Volunteer Board

Published by Ken Burnett on

Prepare for the Fundraising Trustee

Not long after the start of the current great recession a bright young man from deep inside the British Government came to see me, to talk about how volunteer boards in the UK might be strengthened and improved. He told me that scheduled government cuts mean politicians will want to transfer yet more government responsibilities to the voluntary sector. He talked about contracts and capacity and increased flexibility of funding for local authorities, and things like that. Basically what was on the table was less money for all and more central abdication of social provision. But he was worried that, rather obviously, the voluntary sector doesn’t have the capacity to take on more.

I felt obliged to agree, but observed that there might be a fantastic opportunity here. Though, I confessed to little confidence that anyone in government would be able to take advantage of it.

In Britain we have a long and proud tradition of voluntary board service. It’s a national treasure. But if we’re honest it could really do with revisiting and refurbishing. Many Brits imagine that our system of voluntary governance is the envy of the world. So it could be, but I fear it’s not.  In Scandinavia they have a longer and perhaps prouder tradition of building boards based on a more rigorous and professional approach. From what Scandinavian friends tell me, they’re more thorough and better at it than we are.


Trustees won’t deliver their potential contribution as leaders of fundraising until charities change their system of recruiting and developing them. This won’t happen until CEOs and fundraising directors get to select and appoint board members, rather than the other way around.


There’s an opportunity here. Our society, increasingly fed on a culture of greed and celebrity that gets shallower by the day, is leaving many among its population searching for interest, purpose and fulfilment in their lives. It should not be difficult to sell the notion of effective voluntary service to the coming generation. But, for sure we need to overhaul and update the product first  – the antiquated though all too accurate image that charity boards now enjoy will not appeal to young people these days.

ActionAid's three chairsOne difference in Scandinavia is that standards and expectations of board members are clearer and better understood. Scandinavians are encouraged into volunteer governance roles from an early age and expect to discharge their responsibilities properly against clearly specified and universally understood objectives and procedures. There’s a culture of results-oriented, accepted best practice that’s absent in too many British boards. Nordic boards are less hampered by notions of elitism, hierarchy and smug self-satisfaction. There, board members have to deliver against objectives, or get off.

Many of our notions of what’s involved in being a trustee are Victorian at best. We confuse volunteerism and amateurism with unprofessionalism. Many board members would recoil and even revolt at the notion that they should be subjected to specialist training. Many are beyond the potential for learning. No doubt well intentioned, these misguided folk should be swept aside and replaced by qualified individuals capable of learning and putting into practice what it really means to be a volunteer board member in 2010 and beyond.

The real opportunity for change now will be if we invest in building the capacity of volunteer boards by redefining, then effectively promoting, a new brand of selfless voluntary service that really will make a difference to modern public life. But if the man from the government were to ask me how would we do that I’d have to say it’ll take more than good intentions and cosmetic change. What’s needed has to go much deeper.

KenBurnett TinySeries

Adapted from The Tiny Essentials of an Effective Volunteer Board by Ken Burnett, The White Lion Press Limited London, 2006.

Enter the fundraising trustee

A while back the Institute of Fundraising called upon its 5,000 members to consider becoming a trustee, pointing out the positive effect this would have on voluntary boards. One charity leader observed, ‘Becoming a charity trustee is a great opportunity to share your skills, meet new people and make a difference. Fundraising can be overlooked or avoided on boards, especially due to nervousness around the complex rules relating to fundraising.’

But appointing a fundraising trustee won’t solve the problem of a poorly performing board and shouldn’t absolve other board members from engagement in fundraising. For most charities the funding of the organisation is so crucial that its oversight has to be a prime responsibility of the entire board.

Many boards don’t recognise this duty or are reluctant to accept it. Raised expectations will be quickly dashed if the potential for boards to change isn’t there.

Really difficult questions

So how should we build an effective fundraising board? And even more difficult, how should the sector encourage trustees to lead fundraising not just rhetorically, but by example, with their own cash? Most fundraisers know exactly what their board should be and what it should do to become truly effective. But too often the professional management is powerless to influence their board when it comes to making lasting change. This is the ‘elephant in the room’ that voluntary organisations everywhere need to address. We need a better, more accepted and enforceable model of what is required from a charity’s volunteer board. We need agreed standards and external evaluations. Lots of fundraisers becoming trustees would be a big step in the right direction, but they won’t have much chance of impact if their board doesn’t support them and give them room to do a proper job. There’s no place on any board for a trustee who despises the fundraising role or who feels that fundraising is, ‘nothing to do with me’. It’s every trustee’s role.

Many problems arise in the not-for-profit world because boards appoint fundraisers rather than the other way around. If fundraisers can play a part in recruiting their trustees they’ll look for and locate suitable trustees who would not merely ‘get’ fundraising, they come to the board prepared and equipped to play their part in the fundraising process. Not everyone on the board needs to be a fundraiser. Our model of boards that govern in close tandem with a professional management team is vastly preferable to the American model, where board members are selected for their fundraising or donating potential and often contribute little else.

Empowering the fundraising trustee, however, will take more than just an influx onto boards of enthusiastic, experienced fundraisers, welcome though that would be. It will require a fundamental overhaul of the way we want boards to be viewed and to operate.

(This article from Ken’s archive is adapted from a feature that first appeared in the magazine Caritas in June 2010.)


This blog post is part of a series where Ken Burnett takes us back into his own blog archive to share his best timeless posts. These gems are hand-picked by Ken himself.

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett is an author, lecturer and consultant on fundraising, marketing and communications for nonprofit organisations worldwide.


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