Antonia Swinson: the key property questions philanthropists will ask

Years ago, as a business journalist writing on commercial property, my editor advised me that when doing an interview, I should always put myself in the shoes of the person I was interviewing. At the time I thought this sounded daft, but it proved sound advice for getting under the skin of the subject.

To get a good in-depth interview, one needs a rounded view of the person, so imagining myself in their shoes, I would ask myself: what were the raw nerves, the soft spots and the blind spots? What made them laugh, feel great, feel afraid, generous or indiscreet? Whom did they hate or want to impress or annhilate? Even if I didn’t get the answers, just thinking like this gave depth to my questions, and helped me to connect with the person and get the story.

Over the years, I interviewed some of the most brilliant, innovative and exploitative property speculators and developers of our age on both sides of the Atlantic. These were the people who played real life Monopoly with other people’s lives.

Then one day I grew up, put on a suit and started doing a proper job: as a non-profit CEO. Fundraising was entirely new to me and yet the transferable skill of imagining myself in others’ shoes once again proved useful – only this time I was the one being asked the questions.

So, imagine today you’re meeting a rich philanthropist to talk about your charity. They have made their pile in real estate and are up there on the Sunday Times Rich List. They will think in terms of ‘bang for bucks’ and minimising the downside. Asking for money is never easy but you can do it! Put yourself into their head; do they want a knighthood? Who do they want to impress? Most of all, bear in mind they do not want to look a fool. So, deal or no deal? Here are the ten property questions they might ask you:

1. Where’s the charity business plan? Has the charity fully factored in the costs of running their office premises: maintenance, utilities, security, service charges etc.? Are the calculations based on figures from a reliable source – the owner or landlord or a survey – or are they guesswork?

2. What repairs and maintenance obligations does the charity have with regard to its building? Are plans in place to meet these costs?

3. Are you leasing dangerously? Has the charity taken professional advice on the terms of a lease or sale offered to ensure they are getting the best possible deal?

4. If your charity is taking on a building. Have you commissioned a condition survey to highlight potential problems and advise on the correct planned maintenance?

5. Does your charity have a planned maintenance schedule? When was the last condition survey?

6. Has your charity set aside money aside in the budget as a ‘sinking fund’, a pot of money for unplanned expenditure on the premises should an emergency arise? How would you meet any unplanned costs?

7. How does the organisation plan to raise income from the building? Is the asset being used effectively? Are there other potential uses that are being missed?

8. In your business plan, are the premises’ needs included? Have will these needs may change over time?

9. Who is responsible for looking after your premises. Do you have a facilities manager? Do you have the proper training, knowledge and support to do their job correctly?

10. Does your charity plan rent space to other charities? Do you have proper agreements in place with the tenants? How is this managed? Is there space? Who are the tenants?

Think these questions are unlikely? In my experience in interviews, it’s the little things which are the give-aways. Bricks and mortar are rarely the stuff of fundraising magic, but no one can save the world with bailiffs at the door and a leaky roof and rich people didn’t get rich by thinking sloppy.

Antonia Swinson is the chief executive of the Ethical Property Foundation

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