This blog first appeared on the Charity Bank website in June 2017.
Finding ways to strengthen your board is never easy and there is no single solution that will work for every board.
To be more effective, however, boards do need to ask themselves searching questions regarding:
A good board makes all the difference to your charity’s future. Poor governance can lead to loss of strategic focus and ineffective oversight of a charity’s management. On the other hand, a strong board will create a shared vision, renewed purpose and ensure that the charity makes the right strategic decisions. Only the board itself can improve its governance, so it is important that it takes this responsibility seriously.
1. Reflecting on the Code of Good Governance
Creating a time and space in which your board can collectively reflect on their work is absolutely essential for ensuring that you are carrying out your duties properly.
The Code of Good Governance is a wonderful tool to help you do this. The Code centres on seven key themes:
By adopting the Code, board members are committing to a shared understanding of their duties and responsibilities as well as gaining a framework with which to structure a thorough, self-reflective and on-going analysis of their work.
It’s worth noting that inviting an external expert to facilitate the process (either an experienced volunteer or paid consultant) can enhance this process, providing additional impartiality and objectivity especially useful to a board reviewing itself for the first time.
2. Regular skills audits
Making sure that the board is aware of the skill sets it has and those it needs should also be an on-going process. You should set aside a time at least once a year to appraise your composition in relation to anticipated projects and plans.
This will allow you to clearly see where the organisation is going and what expertise you will need, as well as helping you to intelligently anticipate challenges and opportunities.
3. Strong recruitment and induction processes
Recruitment isn’t just about bringing on board valuable new expertise, it’s a process that implicitly sets the tone, culture and expectations of the board.
A strong recruitment process should include open recruitment, induction, training, mentorship and support. These factors combine to directly demonstrate to new trustees how it is they are expected to contribute their expertise and will ultimately result in more engaged, conscientious and capable trustee placements.
4. Create a succession plan
As most trustees well know, recruitment is an on-going process. All too often it can feel like, just as one trustee joins the board, another is preparing to leave. Anticipating this by coaching and mentoring existing trustees to take on important roles such as those of Chair and Treasurer can be a great way of limiting the impact of trustees leaving.
It’s a good idea to make plans for finding suitable replacements for retiring trustees well in advance so they can hand-over their responsibilities and duties properly.
A succession plan is also a great way to avoid the opposite challenge: too little turnover. Trustees should not stay on forever – bringing new trustees on board with fresh perspectives is healthy part of the organisation’s development and should be an integral part of your board’s strategic planning.
5. Training, development and networking
Whilst many boards may not have a budget for training their trustees, you should at least consider some of the courses and networking opportunities out there.
You don’t have to spend your entire governance budget to receive guidance from an expert: Small Charities Coalition, Civil Society and NCVO all offer great opportunities to learn from experts and other trustees.
Similarly, joining appropriate professional and support networks like the Association of Chairs and The Honorary Treasurers Forum can be great ways of meeting and learning from your peers. By joining the UK Charity Trustees group on LinkedIn you can connect directly with an active and friendly online community that is always willing to respond to questions with support and guidance. In addition, annual events like The Trustees Conference and the Trustee Exchange can also be helpful.
6. Constructive criticism & critical friends
Fostering a culture in which trustees are empowered to constructively challenge each other is the cornerstone of a well functioning board. Whilst it’s always incredibly important to respect each other’s opinions, avoiding awkwardness by not addressing potential issues with a given strategy can potentially lead the organisation down a far more precarious path.
Cultivating a culture in which all board members are empowered to challenge each other’s assumptions is a great way of making sure that strategies are tested and re-tested before being implemented and executed. This process is equally important for the Chair’s relationship with the CEO which should include support and challenge in equal measure.
Allowing board members the opportunity to voice their opinions and to challenge each other’s ideas not only reinforces inclusiveness, but can stimulate new ideas, uncover hidden pitfalls and generally refine an organisation’s strategy like no other discursive process.