Philanthropy | For Goodness’ Sake

How a Christmas card changed a charity’s fortunes

A charity needed help – and a Christmas card did the trick

How a Christmas card changed a charity’s fortunes

Image: David Humphries @ Monster

December 06 2009
Claire Wrathall

Thanks to a Christmas card, Ruth Lea, director and economic adviser at the Arbuthnot Banking Group and a governor of the London School of Economics, is also a vice-president of the National Churches Trust.

“We sent her a card because we wanted to recruit her and we knew she happened to like churches,” says Andrew Edwards, chief executive of the trust, a non-religious organisation that exists to preserve the fabric of the 40,000 churches, chapels and meeting houses in the UK – an undertaking he reckons will cost almost £1bn over the next five years for England alone. “And we thought that because she’s an economist and has a fine-tuned understanding of the media, she might, if we could persuade her to become involved, be able to advise us.”

As a strategy, the card paid off. Lea’s curiosity was piqued, for churches are something she has long appreciated as places of peace and beauty. “A little piece of paradise,” she calls 700-year-old St Mary and Holy Trinity in Bow, east London, “as are some of the smaller City churches. When you walk into them, especially those that have been worshipped in and used as a centre for a community, for seven, eight, nine centuries, it really does root you in a very extraordinary way.”

So she e-mailed Edwards, “and the rest is history”. Lea describes her role as “to encourage people to take more interest in the charity – spreading the word, as it were. And to help with advice where I can.” For his part, Edwards regards her both as an “extremely valuable ally in terms of her passion for the subject” and as “the ideal advocate in the way she’s able to speak to those to whom we’re trying to get our message across.”

For when it comes to appointing both advocates and trustees, Edwards rates those with City backgrounds as among the most desirable: “Our chairman is Michael Hoare [of the private bank C Hoare & Co], who brings a wealth of professional experience and connects us with the banking community, which is an enormous asset. And having Charles Aldington, chairman of Deutsche Bank London, as a vice-president has made a huge difference, too.”

Recruiting senior figures to voluntary positions tends to be a matter of networking. For trustees carry great weight. Indeed, the Charity Commission defines these individuals as having “ultimate responsibility for directing the affairs of a charity and ensuring it is solvent, well run and delivers the charitable outcomes for which it has been set up”. Persuading people to assume such a role for no remuneration remains a challenge for most charities.

Despite two just-launched initiatives, the trustee-recruitment services Trustees Unlimited and TrusteeWorks, and innovations such as www.getonboard.org.uk, a site aimed at matching potential trustees with charities, research by New Philanthropy Capital has found that almost half of UK charities have vacancies on their boards, the National Churches Trust among them. This year, it is seeking individuals “with senior experience” in heritage, communications, architecture, income generation, IT or grant-making. Who knows who’ll be on Edwards’ Christmas card list this month?