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.
We’re excited by the results of 2016, our first full year of operating our new online service.
Reach Volunteering supported over 930 placements last year, an increase of over 30 per cent on 2014, the last full year of our ‘offline’ service. And we estimate the total value of the skills transferred to the sector by our volunteers last year to be £13m.
Want to know more? Our latest annual review has all the detail.
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 other skills-based 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.
“As a passionate believer in the worth of volunteering, my involvement with Reach for over 20 years has given me a particular insight to its vital role in both local community organisations and the charitable sector.
Reach has continuously provided expertise and skill, at no charge, to organisations that desperately need these but could in no way afford them.
At the same time Reach provides the means for individuals to consider becoming involved as volunteers and then connecting them to one or more organisations that truly value their voluntary contribution. A virtuous circle.”
“I have undertaken several reports on the voluntary sector for the Government – most notably a statutory Review of the Charities Act 2006. This work has shown me the tremendous contribution made by the sector to the life of the country.
But it has also shown me that voluntary groups, like all of us, can always do better. The trustees and volunteers who run them may lack the necessary range of experience, skills and up to date knowledge.
Further that too many donors see their relationship with a voluntary group in purely economic terms. Of course these groups need money but they also need to learn how to deploy these funds to maximum effect.
This is where Reach can help. It provides access to a range of individuals of varied ages, skills and experience who are prepared to ‘get their hands dirty’ to help voluntary groups achieve their goals.”
“Reach Volunteering services provide an excellent platform for volunteers and charitable organisations to find a match of skills and opportunities, as I know from my personal experience using them when I started to seek volunteer roles in the charity arena.
They cover a broad spectrum of disciplines and types of charities, as well as providing helpful support both to the third sector and to those of us wishing to be a part of it.”
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.
“Skills-based volunteering is an essential ingredient of a well-functioning third sector and a well-functioning economy. As the leading skills-based volunteering charity in the UK, Reach Volunteering does tremendous work in helping both charities, volunteers and societies fulfil their potential. I am proud to be an Ambassador for their important work.”
Here are some reflections from a two skilled volunteers working at Reach, featured last month on the Guardian Witness Volunteers Week webpage…
We are two professionals from quite different backgrounds. Approaching retirement after very busy careers we both looked for volunteering opportunities that would provide a certain office camaraderie and the challenges of the commercial world that we missed. Volunteering with Reach has worked for us in a very satisfying way and given both of us an enjoyable lifestyle balance of work and play.
We, as volunteers at Reach, liaise with charities to help them scope their needed roles and then search for and interact with skilled professionals from our database and externally. The satisfaction of the work comes from effecting a match that means the new recruit finds a role which provides a positive contribution to society and the charity gets the support needed to provide and improve its services.
If you are a skilled professional looking for a satisfying addition to your life come and join us – it’s fun.
Carol and Gordon are skilled volunteers working at Reach Volunteering, supporting volunteer recruitment and our marketing function.