The art of advising

  • Author : Clare Brooks
  • Date : June 2010
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Clare Brooks is Director of Philanthropy at Community Foundation Network

Soft skills are essentially people skills: non-technical, intangible, personality-specific skills. The technical side of advising clients is well known for its complexity and breadth. The human dimension is just as multi-layered, if not more so. It is rarely straightforward to sit down with a client and talk about matters of life and death, or secret passions. To be a successful philanthropy advisor it is essential to employ subtle skills when advising clients: people skills that make the advisor a good listener, negotiator and sometimes conflict mediator.

Cathy Elliot, the Chief Executive of the Community Foundation for Merseyside in the UK was contacted by a colleague in a Merseyside law firm in 2008 about a family struggling to come to terms with the tragedy of their son committing suicide. The family wanted to find a way of supporting and addressing issues of depression and mental health, but didn’t know precisely how to do this and struggled to decide among themselves. Though the family members agreed on the common cause, their thoughts were a jumble of conflicting and inchoate ideas. These included writing a few cheques to some national charities and having a vague notion of setting up a memorial to their son.

Cathy explains: ‘It all started when I joined a meeting between the family and the law firm. The family instinctively knew what they wanted to do, which was to find good charities to support, but they didn’t have a framework to think about what they wanted to achieve, nor how to target their giving. That’s where we were able to come in and help.

‘In the course of the process we took them through some carefully designed questions, which helped them mull over their priorities and gain clarity on the specific objectives they had in mind. At one stage we worked with the father and mother separately, but ultimately we were able to bring the whole family into the process, as well as the family’s lawyers.

‘With this family it was relatively clear which key problem they wanted to tackle – a lowering of suicide rates – but it was also much harder for them to identify the opportunities where their contribution could generate change. We had to do a lot of listening and, in a sense, some testing.’ Following three or four subsequent conversations and some careful questioning, as well as selecting community projects who look at the work of key mental health charities nationally and in Merseyside, Cathy helped the family to set out a programme of action for their giving.

‘What proved most helpful were our introductions to charities that were tackling mental health issues from different angles and approaches, that brought home to the family the things that they really wanted to do. It’s almost like a light bulb moment, you can see people brightening up in front of you when they get to meet the leaders that are doing the kind of work they want to fund, support and interact with, which led one day to the father of the family calling me to say: “I am now a philanthropist!”

‘Ultimately for us it was all about providing a good listening ear, and ensuring that the family always felt that they were in charge and had ownership of what they wanted to do. The process we used was rigorous and intense, but we provided a helpful framework and some opportunities for them to meet committed individuals in different charities who demonstrated to the family where their true passions lay.’

With Cathy’s client, good people skills were essential for dealing with the intensity of the family’s distress. This case was relatively straightforward because this inspirational family had a clear idea of the causes they wanted to champion. But what do you do, when people really don’t know what they want to support, or even worse, they feel they should support one cause but you sense that really, deep down, their heart isn’t in it?

The Capital Community Foundation’s Chief Executive, Sonal Shah, has experience of offering clients visits to projects in much the same way as Cathy Elliott. Sonal says: ‘Some of our clients have a clear focus on what they want to achieve or who they want to give to. But most people start out with a fairly general idea: “young people” is a classic example. It’s our role to tease out the “things that really make them tick” and some of this can be done through direct questioning around interests.

‘Reactions to site visits are a great way of assessing motivations and values, you have to get the client out and interacting with experts and leaders in the voluntary sector. Over the years we’ve been able to build up a huge reserve of knowledge and contacts and can guide people, literally, around the streets to projects. We’ve taken people up in the London Eye to give a panoramic view of what’s going on and who’s doing what. For those with a very clear focus, this can open up a whole new horizon.

‘But what I often find most insightful are the things that people share “off duty” – the types of holidays they like, the way they feel about work, their childhood, their children, a conversation about politics. If you work with a donor over time, these exchanges can be some of the most helpful ones in delivering a giving strategy that is really fulfilling.

‘I remember chatting with a new donor who “just wanted to do something good.” Education interested him but so did many other things and he was keen to support small organisations where he could have a greater impact. Such a broad remit can make it hard to find the things that really hit the spot. In the middle of our conversation, he took a call from his daughter, he came off the phone and started talking about how he missed the opportunities of youth, when all your horizons are open. This said so much to me about what was important to him – it’s these subtle things that can help you understand a client and frame something that works for them. And it doesn’t stop there. You build up rapport over time, you give exposure to new areas of interest and you listen to everything… because everything can be relevant. You go on a journey with that donor and more often than not you find that the way they give and their interests evolve over time.

‘The key thing for us in advising anyone is to start with the donor “where they are”, provide opportunities for learning about areas of need or intervention, and if they wish, guide them in developing their strategy for maximum impact. And it doesn’t stop there. You build up rapport over time, you give exposure to new areas of interest and you listen to everything.’

It’s an experience echoed by Laura Warren OBE, the CEO of Essex Community Foundation. A local solicitor introduced her to a client who wanted to establish a family charitable trust to support children.

‘We initially showed them local charities working with children, but as we discussed potential projects for their fund to support, and took them to visit local projects, it was a shock to them to realise the level of deprivation that existed in their own district. They became interested in the causes of such disadvantage and, over several meetings, we began to focus on ways of making a difference. We knew of a particular project run by two inspirational individuals volunteering their time in the community, and through their fund, the family committed to a three year programme of support. They now want to provide additional money to support young people who lack the skills, motivation or aspiration to find work.

‘The family have developed their thinking enormously and have become great advocates for the work of local charities. They have moved from giving donations in an ad hoc way to understanding that giving can be more strategic and make a real difference, and this has given them far greater satisfaction.’

Philanthropy advising, like financial advising, isn’t, therefore, something you do just once in order to initiate a static trust fund. Just as a client’s interests will change over time, so too will the kind of vehicle they might use and the advice and support needed to adjust their planned giving. This mirrors how a financial advisor regularly reviews a client’s financial plan and options.

The soft skills that are required involve tact, discretion, compassion and the ability to listen, interpret and lead people through a process, as well as providing expertise, guidance and informed choice. It is a gentle balancing act of open-ended questioning, along with some harder, practical questions of philanthropy: available cash, time investment and the need to involve family members.

Our experience is that as philanthropy advisors, community foundations are often called upon to deliver a process of introduction and education to the charity sector and community groups, often a parallel world they have never encountered before and one of surprising complexity and richness, as well as potential frustration to the uninitiated. Clear, candid counsel and advice, coupled with an understanding of the sector and a direct introduction to the charities and funds themselves, will nearly always result in donors who are motivated and fulfilled by their charitable giving.


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