The stories from this year’s Charity Governance Awards entrants are a vivid illustration of the difference a good board can make. They tell of boards that have brought fresh thinking, integrity and a clear vision to their charity’s work, strengthened its impact and, sometimes, averted disaster. The charities themselves range from tiny to large, and their causes are diverse. The governance categories they entered include digital, diversity, impact and turnaround.
They are all stories of great leadership, exercised as a team, for a common cause.
This is quite at odds with the way that we, as a sector, usually talk about trusteeship. Often the focus is on the fiduciary and the language is all compliance, liability, duty. For a long time, I was deeply uninterested in anything to do with trusteeship: it had a fusty, almost Dickensian connotation, and the link between trustees and the work of the charity – the difference it made – seemed tenuous.
However, as the entrants for this year’s awards (and last year’s too) clearly demonstrate, good governance involves so much more than just getting the basics of compliance and scrutiny right.
A common theme of these stories is of trustees keeping hold of the bigger picture and not being afraid to think afresh about how their focus should shift in the context of a changing world. In some cases this meant deciding to narrow their remit to key strategic activity, and stopping anything that did not contribute to this. (This can be so hard to do in practice!) Dementia UK decided to focus on exclusively providing care through specialist Admiral Nurses. For others this meant broadening their mission to create a more holistic approach. For example, Off The Record expanded its work from providing counselling services for young people to a mental health service for the same audience. Body & Soul widened the focus of its services from young people with HIV to a broader range of beneficiaries. Always, the board were careful to keep true to the overall purpose of the charity, and to the needs of service users.
Another strand (and a refreshing change from the stereotype of risk averse boards) is the willingness of the trustees to be ready to try new things where this helps them achieve their goals. Voluntary Arts’ BAME Advisory Panel incorporated shared meals into their meetings to help build inclusivity, Raise the Roof has embedded the use of several off-the-shelf platforms to deliver services and increase participation at board level. There are stories of boards taking bold decisions, based on calculated risk to achieve more – for example, Preston Road Women’s Centre took advantage of the Empty Homes Partnership to develop a new programme providing safe accommodation for women escaping domestic abuse.
The entrants share an evident belief in the value of collective, and collaborative, action; a willingness to look outwards and work in partnership with other organisations. There is also a real seriousness: clarity about the change that the board wants to achieve and determination to draw on the right information and processes to achieve this. These are boards who are interested in the impact of their organisation’s work, who seek evidence of the difference their service makes and take corrective action where necessary. They are also boards who are willing to step up to the plate when the going gets tough. Witness the courage and commitment shown by the trustees of Kentish Town City Farm when faced with a seemingly hopeless situation.
These stories are important for three reasons. They show how there is more to being a trustee than scrutinising accounts. They also offer a counterpoint to the bad press that governance has had in the last couple of years – the plethora of stories about people doing it wrong and a focus on the ‘problems of governance’. This negative focus is problematic, and not only because it creates an unbalanced picture of trusteeship. It actually contributes to the problem: underlying much of the existing bad governance. From poor trustee recruitment to lack of board engagement, there is a lack of appreciation of, or even belief in, the difference that a good board can make to a charity. Sharing examples of good governance is one of the most powerful ways to help people to understand the value of good trusteeship. It makes it tangible. These stories demonstrate that good governance really does matter, that it really is possible, and that it is worth striving to achieve. So, please read and enjoy these stories, and share them widely.
The Charity Governance Awards is organised by the Clothworkers’ Company, in partnership with Reach Volunteering, NPC and Prospectus.
The winners are announced tonight at a ceremony at the Clothworkers Hall in London.
Reach is excited to announce a new partnership with Community Impact Bucks (CIB). Through this partnership skilled volunteering vacancies in Buckinghamshire will be streamed live on Community Impact Bucks’ dedicated volunteering website. This will make roles easier to find and more prominent.
As the accredited Volunteer Centre for Buckinghamshire, Community Impact Bucks promotes volunteering, and also helps and advises organisations to find the volunteers they need.
Posting vacancies for trustees and skilled volunteers will give local charities and non-profit organisations access to the thousands of skilled volunteers registered with Reach. CIB will also continue to promote Reach to prospective volunteers in Buckinghamshire.
Nick Phillips, CIB chief executive, says: ‘We are really excited about our new partnership with Reach. They have over 35 years of experience of making worthwhile connections between charities and experienced volunteers. I know this will be of real benefit to our local organisations.’
Janet Thorne, Reach chief executive officer, adds: ‘Our volunteers can make a real difference to a charity or non-profit group. They have several years of experience and a huge range of expertise. They are interested in using it to have a positive impact in communities and society. I’m thrilled that charities and organisations in Buckinghamshire will benefit from our new partnership.’
The trustee and skills-based vacancy streaming will be going live this spring. In the meantime, Buckinghamshire organisations are encouraged to make use of Reach and to post all appropriate vacancies on the Reach website.
We are really pleased to read the recommendation in the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities report, that charities should have a digital trustee. If charities are going to really engage with digital (and they really must!) they need leadership that understands the opportunities as well as the risks. Boards that do not understand how digital is changing the world that their charity operates in will never invest sufficiently in it. Having a trustee with expertise in this area can make a big difference.
Reach launched a programme last year to tackle this very issue. Supported by the Charity Commission, Zoe Amar and IBM, building boards for a digital age provides charities with the guidance, inspiration, and, most crucially, a pool of keen, prospective digital trustees. We have recruited some great candidates, but the uptake from charities has been slower. Research last year found that trustees ranked digital skills as the most needed on their boards. And yet this skill set remains one of the least demanded in our trustee recruitment service, despite our campaign. Perhaps boards find it all a bit daunting?
Elsewhere the report seeks to encourage a stream of more diverse and skilled trustees, recommending that ’employers should be encouraged to give greater recognition to trustee roles in recruitment and progression of their staff’. This would be great – but from where we sit, there is also a need to encourage charities themselves to invest a bit more time and effort in how they recruit trustees. Not many charities do it well. How you recruit is a key part of getting the right people, with the right motivations. The traditional tap on the shoulder approach is problematic not just because it limits diversity, but also because it fosters a ‘hobbyist’ culture.
The supply of willing trustees is only part of the problem.
The report also looks more broadly at how charities are taking to digital. This is the third report published in one week which focuses on this issue – see Lloyds Bank Foundation’s Facing Forward report on smaller charities, and Charity Digital Skills which hones in on the sector’s lack of digital skills. The Committee’s recommendation that the Big Lottery provides support to infrastructure bodies ‘to share knowledge and best practice on innovation and digitalisation’ is very welcome. The suggestion that the tech sector provides training and development opportunities is also right. However, I think that the report misses a trick by not seeing the connection with volunteering. There are many people with the right expertise willing to donate their skills for a social purpose, and they could play a big role helping smaller charities develop their capability and capacity. Volunteers could help breach the digital skills gap.
On the subject of volunteering, the report takes the enlightened and all-too-rare approach of recognising that the chief challenge is not in finding more volunteers, but in finding sustainable ways to support and manage them.
‘Investing in volunteers is a way of respecting their contribution as well as increasing their value to the charity’, says the report.
I couldn’t agree more! However, I think that the report’s exclusive emphasis on volunteer managers is wrong.
Many smaller charities do not have a dedicated volunteer manager because volunteers are embedded within different teams, and centralising the role may not be appropriate. The answer is more investment in volunteer recruitment and management, regardless of organisation structure.
Throughout, the report keeps the needs of small charities in its sights, and makes many welcome recommendations about governance, finance and commissioning. Infrastructure organisations are called on to do quite a bit more, although there is scant reference to the fact that many are dwindling or have closed altogether. Still, recognition of their role is something.
Reach will continue to run its programme, supporting charities to recruit trustees that can help embed digital at a strategic level. We will also encourage charities to recruit volunteers that can lend their expertise to implementation.
We are pleased that the House of Lords Charity Select Committee report has helped focus attention on digital, and particularly on digital trustees. We hope that more charities will now act on this recommendation.
Susana Morgado Gomez shares her experience of how being a trustee benefits both volunteer and charity.
‘Every year Mind In Camden provides a range of services to some 1,000 people with serious mental health needs and the staff who work with them, in partnership with national and local organisations, and the NHS.
‘I work in the banking sector and wanted to use my skills to make a contribution to a cause I believe in, as well as increase my Board exposure in a different sector. Mind In Camden were looking for a new trustee who, along with financial acumen, would bring strategic skills. They really wanted someone that shared the charity’s values, especially around the core principle of seeing mental health as a continuum on which we are all at different points, at different times in our lives. This means there is no ‘us’ (= well) and ‘them’ ( = ill).
‘In joining Mind In Camden as a trustee, I feel I am making a contribution to an organisation where people are very passionate about their work, but are working under very different circumstances and resources to my day job.
This is a highly complementary experience to the commercial and financial background that I have.
‘Being a trustee is a strategic role, it is not a day to day role, and it’s important to understand the difference. Trustees are ultimately accountable to the public and regulators – so it is important that the fit is right between the charity, the trustee and the chief executive.
‘From a practical perspective a trustee is expected to attend and actively contribute to effective Board meetings and decision making, in his or her area of core competence. A considerable part of the trustee role is about self-education in the sector and the charity to which he or she belongs. This is paramount to help you support and challenge the management team, as necessary. The support angle is very important to maintaining the motivation of the team, but it is equally important to challenge, helping them recognise any blind spots and mitigate risk, or not miss opportunities.
Additionally, a Trustee is a representative of the Charity and should not only be available to represent the charity as required, but also act as an Ambassador for the organisation.
‘In this particular experience I enjoy the different kind of environment and diverse background of the Board – the diversity contributes to you growing as an individual and a professional. In joining a team like the Board of a charity, you have to adapt to contribute – and use your transferable skills.
‘Being a trustee is an extremely personal experience that requires passion and energy. It is very rewarding and very energising.’
For more information on Mind services visit Mind In Camden.
To find a trustee or a trustee role, visit Reach Volunteering.
Parkinson’s UK Chair of Trustees, Mark Goodridge shares his thoughts on what digital means to his organisation and the opportunities it offers. This blog is published as part of the building boards for a digital age campaign.
Mark’s approach to leading Parkinson’s UK is open and exploratory, and this is reflected in his approach to digital. From his perspective, technology has always influenced how organisations are structured, so the challenge any organisation is to make sure that they are structured around today’s technology rather than yesterday’s. This offers Parkinson’s UK some exciting opportunities.
‘The way things are is often shaped by the legacy of older technology,’ says Mark. ‘This is why we should keep asking if they are fit for purpose. Like many large charities, Parkinson’s UK has many branches which provide a localised way to fundraise, to connect with individuals on the ground, and to offer peer support. To some extent, this structure is, in itself, a product of the technology available at the time it developed. But times change and so we have to look at that structure in today’s context.
‘People are diagnosed with Parkinson’s at an earlier age and these people often have jobs, families, commitments, that mean that face-to face group sessions may not be the best option for them. But it’s not just younger people who want digital services.
There is a tendency for people to assume that older people are not online – but they are.
‘Digital offers opportunities to do some things much better. Local groups will always play a valuable role, and we can further support these groups through digital channels by helping them to collaborate and share good resources. But there is a huge range of different kinds of people who need to access quite detailed information from us – from people with Parkinson’s to carers to Parkinson’s branch secretaries – and we need a very sophisticated information architecture to accommodate this effectively.
‘We have great content on our website – very well respected information – but Parkinson’s can be a complex illness which affects people in quite different ways.
Online services can offer greater personalisation – and this is crucial in helping people with difficult and complex needs which often cluster in quite individual ways.
‘Parkinson’s UK has great reach – we have over 35,000 members – but this still does not constitute the majority of people with Parkinson’s, and their carers. We want to support many more people, and digital offers us some intriguing ways that we might do that – connecting and mediating mutual support for example, or bringing together particular demographics such as young people with Parkinson’s.
We will never be able to do it all, all by ourselves, but we can play a role in enabling others to do more, and digital can help us do this.
This blog is part of the building boards for a digital age campaign.
Are you thinking about becoming a digital trustee? Or perhaps you have you just begun the process? Here, Reach digital trustee Dominic Tinley, offers some advice based on his own experience.
In my case, Reach wanted a trustee with digital expertise to support the board overseeing the major digital redevelopment of the Reach service and website. Others may need someone at Board level to ensure that existing digital operations are performing at optimum level or help develop an entire new strategy to achieve the charity’s objectives.
Is the charity seeking website experience or is it a long-term strategy for digital communications, customer service experience and business improvements? Do they have a clear idea of what they do want or need?
You’ll be taking on a long-term commitment at a board level. Unlike short-term projects you may have taken on as a digital expert, board responsibilities may consume more time than you can give. Boards traditionally meet four to six times a year, but additional time may be required on an ad hoc basis. Do inquire what might be expected.
Technology is developing quickly, but many small charities are a few steps behind, so you need the patience to explain technology to others and support them in building their knowledge. As a digital expert you may be used to working on well-funded projects, or in a team environment where there are other specialists to provide support. In a small charity, you will need to be more self sufficient, but this also provides a great opportunity to expand your knowledge. You’ll be learning about all other aspects of running a charity and build your skills in other areas – from fundraising to marketing, from accounting to volunteer recruitment.
Unlike short-term projects, this will be an ongoing relationship. It’s important everyone can get along. As a prospective digital trustee it’s important to meet the other board members, to meet the Chair and the Chief Executive Officer. Take your time over this. In joining the board as an observer you can get a feel for the organisation and others can get a feel for you.
Are the charity’s objectives those that your feel passionately about? Not only will you have helped the charity become more sustainable, but you will benefit, too, in knowing that you have contributed to a cause you care about.
Dominic Tinley is a digital expert and trustee of Reach Volunteering. Read more about the Reach story.
This case study was authored by In-Deep for the building boards for a digital age campaign.
In-Deep Community Task Force is a small charity founded in 2002 that works to support communities and tackle Isolation in Westminster, Lambeth and Battersea. Our turnover is in the region of £40,000 per year, funded through a combination of grants and fundraising activities. We are completely volunteer run. Our board currently has five active members, including our Chair and Founder, Charity Secretary, Treasurer and one service user.
One of our trustees works for Microsoft. Microsoft’s London base was formerly around the corner from our main site in Westminster. They were keen to encourage their staff to volunteer and as a local charity we were connected with them through our volunteer centre, One Westminster. As a result we have had a number of volunteers from Microsoft join us over the years. One of these volunteers was Kate. She had been a long-term volunteer before agreeing to join the board of trustees in 2015.
As an organisation we knew that our website was not meeting our needs.
It was difficult to maintain and we had to rely on a former volunteer to update content, which was a very slow process as the volunteer in question was often hard to reach and had little time available. This meant that we couldn’t keep the site up to date, which was a problem as we are often introducing new services and running one off events. It also didn’t send the right impression to potential funders and partners to have a website that was out of date.
Kate quickly carried out a review of our site. As well as picking up on the problems we were aware of, she also identified a major risk that we hadn’t identified.
Apparently search engines are moving to a stage where they will automatically read the content of a site and what they find determines where the site appears in search results. The technology behind our site was apparently so dated, that search engines would shortly not be able to read it at all, and it would stop coming up on searches all together.
Kate put together a proposal for the development of a whole new site. This would be based on open source software so wouldn’t cost the earth. It would also be very simple to use so that our regular volunteers would easily be able to update the content. With the board’s support Kate put together a call for developers, which she uploaded onto an online marketplace for web developers. As a result we received responses from developers all over the world. Kate ran a selection exercise with the board and we are currently working with a developer in India to put together a brand new site for just £500. Kate is also going to train a group of volunteers to manage the site.
The new site will be easier to navigate and ensure that we can keep our service users and their families up to date on our new and existing activity. It will also help us to reach new service users. Finally we will be able to present a more professional image to funders, potential donors and partners.
My advice to other charities would be that a board member with digital knowledge and skills is invaluable.
This has been a big piece of work, so having a board member in charge has made the process simpler and easier. As a first step talk to a volunteer broker, like Reach Volunteering or your local volunteer centre. They may have connections with IT companies that can help with volunteers. I know that many IT professionals are keen to use their skills to help charities and community groups.
On International Volunteer Day, we share our gratitude with all our volunteers, and Reach volunteer Jeanne Davis tells why she volunteers and what a difference it makes on both sides.
Volunteering in my later life is far more fulfilling than I had ever thought. Recently retired from a long career in journalism and widowed, I needed to find something to do. I tried freelance journalism. It was not good. Assignments were few and far between and, working alone in my flat, I missed the camaraderie of a busy office.
Then a friend told me that the charity Reach Volunteering was looking for a communications volunteer at their office in London.
How have I used my skills volunteering at Reach? And benefited too? I write up the stories of how a Reach volunteer helped a charity succeed. These experiences help us particularly when we are looking for funding to show the impact that Reach has made. I help edit the annual review.
I have learned to spread the word about Reach through the new communication channels of social media, contributing to blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and more.
And the camaraderie. Reach has a small staff of six and a group of volunteers who like me are donating their professional experience. We take time for lunch and interesting conversation, often from diverse points of view. I have made new friends, meeting to go to the cinema and exhibitions.
Best of all, by helping to make Reach sustainable, I have in my small way, contributed to the success of many other charities. This year, we will place nearly 900 volunteers making a difference in over 600 causes as diverse as the environment, mental health and poverty relief.
I have been with Reach for 13 years and look forward to many more helping in whatever way I can.
The new National Trustee Survey by ACEVO and nfpSynergy has an interesting and surprising finding that has not surfaced in the commentary. Third Sector News ran with the headline Trustees under pressure. But there was some more positive news buried within the survey.
The question about board skills elicited an interesting and unexpected response: trustees ranked web/digital/online skills as the ones that they most needed on their board – far ahead of the kinds of skills that people tend to assume that boards most want, like financial or fundraising and income generation.
The nearest competitor for this pole position was ‘campaigning’. The detail is informative too: trustees were asked to rank skills from the ‘most needed’ to ‘already had sufficient expertise’.
Digital skills came out clearly as winner across the board – both the most needed, and the least held.
And now to a point I’ve heard made quite a few times: it’s not that boards don’t see the point of digital skills, and therefore haven’t prioritised them – only one per cent felt that digital skills were not relevant to their board. Compare this with the 12% who thought campaigning skills were not relevant.
Reach is an ardent advocate of the need for trustee boards to embrace digital. We recently launched a campaign to promote digital expertise at board level and to help boards recruit in these skills – building boards for a digital age.
However, whilst we are convinced of the underlying need, and can happily agree all day with other like-minded organisations about how important this is, we weren’t sure if many charity boards felt the digital skills gap so keenly. Now we know that they do.
Trustees are often accused of being risk averse and old fashioned. I read this survey as an endorsement of trustees’ attitudes – their willingness to look forwards, to embrace the new and unfamiliar, and to consider how their organisation should operate in a new digital world.
Happily, there are some great people with digital experience that are ready and keen to join trustee boards – have a look at some of their profiles.
It’s time to plug that skills gap on the board and recruit a ‘digital trustee’!
This article was authored by NPC’s Director of Development, Tris Lumley for the building boards for a digital age campaign.
It’s great to see an increasing focus within charity governance on what’s needed from a board in today’s (and tomorrow’s) ever more digital world. Recruiting trustees with real experience of digital in other sectors is a great start, and will certainly help a charity navigate the huge opportunities and challenges that digital presents.
But just getting some digital experience on your board is only the start.
If charities really want to embrace the potential of digital transformation, they have some big questions to grapple with, going to the heart of their governance and their mission.
In Tech for common good, NPC’s first report on digital transformation in the charity sector, we started to lay out the enormity of the challenge (and the opportunity). As we’ve already seen in the private sector, digital technology upends existing business models, disrupts entire industries, and redefines relationships between businesses and their customers, suppliers, and competitors. It’s incredibly exciting to think about the potential for social purpose organisations to radically redefine how they operate with digital technology infused into their strategies, operations, communications and engagement with service users. It’s also more than a little terrifying for most boards to even start to go here.
When Tom Loosemore, ex-Deputy Director of GDS (the Government Digital Service) spoke at NPC’s recent annual conference NPC Ignites, he made it very clear what’s required to succeed in a digital world, and to develop effective digital products and services. Rather than the traditional strategic planning process (write strategy, develop detailed requirements, build something, deploy to users, etc.) good tech development totally upends this process. It starts with really getting to understand users’ requirements, and then quickly prototyping something. Testing it out with users then means much more than asking them whether it works for them —it’s about observing their behaviour in detail. Then learning from that testing, and iterating the solution. This process, often referred to as agile development, is the key to all the successes of GDS. Build, test, learn, iterate.
So what relevance does that have to charities’ governance?
It’s incredibly important to recognise that this approach is almost the antithesis of charities’ traditional governance models, and to their fundraising and operations. Boards like to develop strategies slowly, through strategic planning processes that often take many months, and ultimately result in weighty tomes that feel like they are written in stone. These strategies then filter into fundraising and operations from the top-down, resulting in funding applications and programme designs that are pretty rigid and long-term. Grant-makers are asked to support three year programmes based on a set approach, and promised reporting against fixed milestones. The strategy sets the design principles that everything else is built on.
That’s all overseen by a governance model based on the rhythm of quarterly meetings. Tick, tock, steady as she goes.
What Tom Loosemore really drove home in his speech is that top-down strategy doesn’t cut it.
In his words, strategy is delivery. Understand users, build, test and iterate rapidly.
While many charities are starting to wake up to the huge potential of digital technology, I don’t think many have yet begun to confront just how much they need to change to harness it. Fundraising will have to adapt to putting the user at the centre, and being open about not knowing yet how a charity’s products and services will meet their needs. And governance will have to adapt to providing strategic oversight of an organisation that’s rapidly changing, flexing, and to adapt the startup world’s jargon, even pivoting entirely.
GDS did this by being established outside of the silos and bureaucracy of departmental structures. Whether, and how charities will take on the flexibility they’ll need to succeed in a digital world is far from clear.