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.
The stories from this year’s Charity Governance Awards winners and 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 were announced at a ceremony at the Clothworkers Hall in London on Wednesday 24 May 2017.
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.
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 Director of Policy and Communications at the Charity Commission, Sarah Atkinson for the building boards for a digital age campaign.
Nowadays, more than ever, digital is at the centre of our everyday lives. As a result, charities need to have the skills and confidence to navigate and exploit technology for their organisation. That’s one of the reasons why we are supporting building boards for a digital age, a collaborative campaign to increase digital expertise on charity boards.
The benefits that technology can bring to charities are wide-ranging; they include the chance to reach a greater audience, to engage more reciprocally with supporters, and to increase operational efficiency. There are also risks that come with digital, from cyber fraud to data protection breaches. Having trustees with digital expertise on a board means that charities will be in a good position to exploit these benefits for their charity, but also to mitigate the risks, and be better prepared to manage any problems quickly and effectively. Digital can also support strong governance if trustees are able to use technology to access information and make quick decisions, increase insight into their charity’s activities, and ensure that when trustees delegate, they are using technology to clarify what the charity’s policies and procedures are.
If you have a digital background and are thinking of joining a charity board, there are huge benefits to taking on such a vital role.
Trusteeship is an excellent way to get involved in your community and help a cause that matters to you. It introduces you to new experiences and people, and allows you to develop new skills, stretch yourself and apply your knowledge to real, fresh challenges. What’s more, spearheading the use of new technology amongst trustees to ensure your organisation makes the greatest difference possible will be extremely rewarding.
Of course not all charities are lucky enough to have a trustee board with strong digital expertise. With the support of Grant Thornton and Zoe Amar Communications, the Charity Commission recently launched a new resource, 12 questions about digital for trustees, to highlight the issues that boards should consider when approaching digital.
Across 12 wider areas where digital could have an impact – such as strategy, culture, and service delivery – we’ve looked at the key questions trustees should ask as a starting point to navigate the digital opportunities and risks in that area.
For example, when it comes to using digital to build your brand, do you have a website that is easy to navigate and optimised for all devices?
Are you considering the digital trends when it comes to fundraising, such as the rise of crowdfunding?
We hope that boards that don’t yet have a trustee with digital expertise can use this tool to start a conversation and to increase their collective understanding of digital. We also hope that digital trustees, those with a deeper familiarity with and appetite for technology, can use it to evaluate where on a digital journey their charity is, and where there are gaps or opportunities, to ensure the sector isn’t left behind as we move to an increasingly digital future.
Sarah was appointed Director of Policy and Communications at the Charity Commission in October 2014. She is a board member of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years and a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Professional Practices Panel.
Entries are now open to charities both large and small, from all sectors, for the Charity Governance Awards 2017 – the UK awards that recognise and reward good charity governance.
Reach Volunteering is delighted to be a partner in these awards that by shining a spotlight on the best of the sector, demonstrate how effective governance can transform a charity and the lives of its beneficiaries.
Entry to the awards is free. Each of the seven categories offers a £5,000 cash prize.
Looking for inspiration for your entry? Want to know what makes an award winner special? Browse the profile pages and short films for the winners, and the shortlisted charities.
You can enter online for free until 13 January 2017. The winners will be announced at the invite-only free awards ceremony drinks reception on 24 May 2017. Follow the conversation at #charitygov17
The Charity Governance Awards are organised by The Clothworkers’ Company – a City Livery company that supports trusteeship initiatives – in partnership with NPC (New Philanthropy Capital), Prospectus and Reach.
Reach has launched building boards for a digital age to increase the digital expertise of charity trustee boards. Working in collaboration with partners, we will be supporting boards to recruit ‘digital trustees’ and maximise their ability to lead their charities through this digital age.
Every charity is operating in a digital world now. When you make decisions about any element of your operations, digital is a key component, whether you chose to embrace it or not. How you should store and organise your data, how best to communicate with beneficiaries, donors and funders, how you promote your services, how you deliver them, and how you measure their effectiveness – these are all digital questions.
Many charities shy away from digital because they fear that they have insufficient expertise, and they worry that digital projects can be expensive, tricky and risky to implement. And they can be all those things.
But the benefits can also be huge – greater reach, scalable services, efficiency savings, to name but a few. And the risk of ignoring digital is even greater – a slow but fatal slide into irrelevance or obscurity.
It is crucial that charities have a strategic approach to digital. Not digital for digital’s sake, but for the contribution it can make to your charity’s strategic goals.
Your board needs to have the expertise and knowledge to:
• see the huge opportunities that digital offers your charity
• make informed decisions about the risks that it brings
• champion digital innovation
• ask probing questions of your plans.
I know from first-hand experience (having led Reach through its own digital transformation) that board buy-in to the project was essential. It made all the difference having trustees with digital expertise who really understood the process. They provided proper oversight, helped source experts, and most crucially of all, kept their nerve at sticky moments. But even if you don’t have any big projects planned, you still need to be considering what role digital should play in your strategy.
We are supporting charities to build their board’s digital expertise, by working together with public, private and voluntary sector partners to provide:
• useful resources and guidance
• links to training
• direct support to recruit trustees with digital expertise.
Digital is a topic that the whole board needs to engage with but it can really help to have at least one trustee with specialist knowledge. Someone that can champion the role of digital and ask more searching questions. We are therefore focusing our efforts on helping charities to recruit digital trustees.
Working with partners, we are building a pipeline of prospective digital trustees. We will promote charities’ digital trustee positions through these and other partners; through our TrusteeWorks recruitment service; and through LinkedIn and other channels.
If you are already thinking about recruiting, we’d encourage you to upload a role with us by 4 November so that you can take advantage of our big push this November. This will include promotion with key partners, a tailored search on your behalf by our TrusteeWorks team, and lots of social media promotion during Trustees’ Week (7 -13 November). And all of this is free!
You can also register to receive regular updates from our campaign and links to free resources – just complete the newsletter sign up details on this page.
Scarcely a week seems to go by without some bad news story about charity governance. Kids Company, fundraising scandals, harsh words from a House of Commons Committee; there has been a stream of news articles illustrating how bad governance can be and the terrible implications of this. And yes, bad governance is clearly a serious problem.
But is this a fair picture of governance in the sector? No! There are many truly amazing but unsung boards out there, steering their charities through perilous waters with good judgement, great courage and lots of hard work.
How do I know this? Because I have just been reading through examples of many such boards. I have had the privilege to be one of the judges in the inaugural Charity Governance Awards. Together with many much wiser heads than mine, we shortlisted from over 100 entries, and the calibre was truly impressive. We were looking for boards which had shown real leadership in improving impact, embracing opportunity and risk, demonstrating diversity and inclusion, or turning around their charity’s fortunes.
It was a humbling and inspiring experience: instances of trustees making tough decisions for the long term, going the extra mile to create vibrant, diverse boards, seizing new opportunities without betraying the charity’s values, to name but a few.
Whilst the challenges and the responses varied widely (as did the nature and size of the charities), all showed great commitment and leadership. They seemed to me to demonstrate the personal qualities of good trustees, as outlined by charity lawyer Philip Kirkpatrick recently: conscientiousness, inquisitiveness, courage and judgement – meshed with effective challenge.
Of course there are cases of poor governance, and we should study them closely. But there are also many cases of brilliant governance, and we can, perhaps, learn even more from them. Certainly we should be sharing these stories to bring balance to the flow of bad news and to remind ourselves that the charity sector has much to be proud of.
I am looking forward to 12 May when the winners will be announced and we can celebrate their success. But, even more so, I am eagerly anticipating sharing the stories of the shortlisted through an ebook that will be compiled soon afterwards. There are wonderful Boards out there, and we all deserve to know about them!
Having had great success in our work with students’ unions over the last few years, the TrusteeWorks team is excited to be moving forward with NUS in a more formal capacity as preferred supplier.
We are confident that this relationship will give us the opportunity to help many more students’ unions source fantastic external trustees.