Time for leaders of trusts and foundations to come out of the shadows?

Published: 30 Jun 2015 By Eleanor Southwood

Richard Gomes’ comments at NPC’s Leading Impact conference in March shone a light on a sector that rarely hits the headlines. The efficiency (or otherwise) of trusts and foundations and the extent to which they are able to judge whether they are doing a good job largely depends on how they are led and what executive and non-executives believe they are there to do.


Eleanor Southwood, Principal Consultant, NFP Consulting

Yet there is surprisingly little public discussion about what is needed to lead a trust or foundation. Of course, the sector is hugely diverse and making generalisations is a risky business. Leadership dynamics and accountabilities differ for small, family trusts compared to corporate foundations. But our experience of working with the sector in all its forms over the past 14 years suggests that some common skills and behaviours are increasingly important across the spectrum.

The courage to put purpose before tradition and sustainability

Today’s leaders identify a growing need to realign their organisations in response to 21st century needs. This means having the skills and confidence to engage constructively with trustees and stakeholders to create an identity that values the past whilst telling a compelling story about the future.

Fundamentally, this is about re-examining how mission is being delivered and being honest about whether current practices, structures and a temptation to focus on organisational sustainability are getting in the way.

The confidence to take risks and embrace failure

An emphasis on recognised ways of measuring impact and demonstrating value can feel like a challenge to traditions that many trusts and foundations hold dear: the freedom to use their instincts and invest for the longer-term. The demand for leaders who can build teams who are able to make smart choices about how to measure success and foster cultures which promote a healthy attitude to risk and failure is growing.

Skills for collaboration and influence

Many organisations now recognise their role in going beyond traditional grant-giving to broker solutions through alliances. Chief executives and trustees with cross-sector networks and partnership-building experience are increasingly in demand. Whilst many trusts and foundations recognise the value of using their insights for influencing change, the skills to manage and market this information effectively do not yet seem to be widespread.

Ambassadorial and reputation management skills

The public and media are waking up to the huge investment that comes through trusts and foundations and are taking more of an interest in who organisations are and how they work. The stereotypes of unassuming administrators, diligently carrying out the good works of Lords and Ladies bountiful are fading to be replaced by confident, external-facing and politically astute communicators who are able to articulate social value and act as ambassadors for projects and partnerships.

These skills and behaviours exist in pockets across the sector but a concerted effort will be needed if they are to become the norm. Building future leadership capacity will also depend on the sector being an attractive place to build a career, not just to retire into. Further professionalization and modernisation will help. But a more strategic approach that includes opportunities for people from all sectors and backgrounds to move into and around the sector is needed if the response to complex social, economic and environmental challenges is to be dynamic, creative and truly effective.


NFP Consulting works with individuals and organisations offering recruitment, executive search, consultancy and people development.

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