An interview with Caroline Harlow
I don’t know why, but when I think about the trustees at Devon Community Foundation I can’t help thinking about the scene in the Lord of the Rings when the Fellowship of the Ring is formed. Now, I’m not for a second saying we have a troll or an elf or a very short person with hairy feet on our board, but that scene did give me goose bumps. Because it’s about a mix of characters with different skillsets and qualities, coming together ceremoniously for one joint and very noble purpose. And in our case, they come together round a (really rather less grand) table four times a year to ensure the smooth running and effective management of our own fellowship, that’s Devon Community Foundation.
In wanting to get to know more about the role of our trustees, why they do what they do and what their relationship with our organisation is like, I was kindly granted some time to grill one of our current board, Caroline Harlow.
Before I had even met Caroline, she had already unwittingly given me a clue into her particular strength, in the unexpected shape of a welcome card. We all remember what it’s like on the first day of a new job – you feel nervous. Am I going to be able to do the job? What are my colleagues going to be like? Will I fit in? Well, atop my new desk on my first day was a card from a face I was yet to be introduced to. ‘Welcome’ it said and ‘so glad to have you on board!’ it might not have answered the question about my competence but it certainly helped me feel at ease knowing that a positive effort had been made to make me feel at home.
You see, here, among other things, Caroline takes on the role of the ‘go-to’ if any of us need support; be it professional, personal or spiritual. She describes herself as a ‘sounding board’ and a ‘shoulder,’ so I get to asking her how exactly she came to be looking out for the esteem of a Community Foundation in Devon.
Well, I met Martha [Devon Community Foundation CEO] and Sarah [DCF Deputy CEO] at a funding event at Exeter Castle and we got talking. We agreed to meet up again and they continued to ask me along to anything that DCF was doing, and I went to various events and became more and more interested.
Within this time then were you building up a relationship with the Foundation?
Yes. And a very strong relationship. I’d had to leave work earlier than I had planned to, and I found the personal relationship I built with Sarah and Martha was really important. I began to do more and more, then I became a donor, and then I was asked to become a trustee.
So you became a donor first?
Yes, we try to spread the demographic of our Board out as wide as we can and that can include donors, but it’s certainly not a prerequisite of becoming a trustee.
In your case though it was your route to becoming a trustee?
Yes, they approached me to be a trustee and I thought “Oh yikes, that’s a bit out of my comfort zone.” I was touched and flattered and I thought “Yes, that would be absolutely perfect, that would be great” and it’s just gone from strength to strength, and my involvement with DCF has become more and more.
I just believe in it so passionately as a way of giving, and a very effective way for people who love Devon, as I do – it’s been my adoptive county over the last 30 years, I’ve brought my children up here and been really happy here – to give something back. DCF opened a door into a whole new life for me, for which I will be eternally grateful.
Could you tell me a bit more about your role?
My role as trustee has been very variable. I came in without a natural role, I haven’t got a skill as such- I’m not a money person, HR person, I am not a strategy person, I’m not a committee person but what I thought I could bring, having spent so long in Devon, is a network of Who’s Who and What’s What. My husband Tim was a GP in Cullompton and Uffculme for a long time so I had a knowledge of that area, I was a speech and language specialist in the county before I got very involved in brain injury as my specialism, and so got to know about pockets of deprivation and how medically and therapy-wise the county worked. I’ve got a great passion for seeing the right thing done, and for people being encouraged and empowered to become more resilient and manage their communities better. I think that’s what has really given me the vision to engage with DCF as that’s a strategy that we employ as an organisation.
Is that your main motivation as a trustee then, to support what we do? As individuals and on the whole?
Yes. As individuals certainly, and I also believe that very much part of our role as trustees is about being ambassadors for the organisation. Wherever I go my ears are flapping as to who I let know about Devon Community Foundation! I have got to have confidence that the Foundation is running really well and that it’s working as an organisation because I want to sell it to the people Devon who might have some money and are looking for a route for it to go. I’ve got to make sure that the groups are getting money coming in, and I’ve got to ensure there’s money going out. I’ve found some of those groups, spoken to them, got them going, got them to ring up the grants team and said this is where you might find a pot of money.
For me, the pleasure of knowing that I might have met somebody who says ‘Yeah OK, it does look a great organisation’ or to meet someone from the ground, where everything happens saying ‘Oh great, it would be fantastic to get some money from an organisation’ and you see them come together, you think actually, that’s quite good really!
We see you quite often in the office as well.
Yes, I try to come into the office as much as I can, without being over burdening, because sometimes the trustee role can be seen by the people who are doing the work as quite threatening. As trustees are these sort-of, slightly hidden, shady figures known as ‘The Board’. ‘The Board say we can’t do this’ and ‘the board say we can’t do that’ and I think we have to be very aware that we can be seen as these authoritarian figures. I’ve tried to dispel that because that’s not actually what the trustees are. We do have to be quite aware that when we rock up in the office people think ‘Oh gosh, what are they going to ask me to do?’ ‘What have I done wrong?’ ‘What’s going to change?’ ‘What are the implications of this visit?’ So I try to visit quite regularly just to show my face, and give people the confidence to come and talk things over, mull things over. If I can be a sounding board or a shoulder, that’s fine and that does happen that is good, so things don’t escalate.
Every trustee is different and some are more hands on than others but we all definitely want the staff to see us as approachable and there to support the whole organisation.
Do the trustees feel like a team then?
Yes, we’re all invested in the organisation. Which is good. And of course, we are there essentially to give planned strategy, with Martha and Sarah’s guidance. We oversee that the CEO is carrying out the instructions of the board and if not, why not? We get that feedback and give that person support to run the organisation, without being too overbearing or too meddling.
Critical friend, is a very good phrase I like.
We try to make it as collaborative we possibly can and just be that conduit that Martha absolutely knows that she can contact any of us at any time, and she does.
To find out more about joining DCF as a trustee please visit our trustees FAQs page here.