Recently we at Eastside Primetimers held a seminar on governance, with three guest speakers who chair charities giving their experiences; Bryan Portman (Chair of the charity Family Action), Paul Baldwin (Chair at World Animal Protection) and Stephen Hickey (Chair of the Community Transport Association). We thank them for their contributions.

From Bryan Portman, we were reminded that polls show that in light of some of the scandals that have buffeted our sector recently, public trust in sector has slipped significantly. Worse, the sector’s regulator is overstretched. The Charity Commission lacks the powers of its housing sector counterpart and its budget is not growing even though the overall number of charities still is, increasing the need for effective oversight. This makes self-regulation from charity trustee boards all the more crucial.

Charities themselves are in a funding environment that is getting increasingly difficult. So what role does this entail for trustees and Chairs and what does good governance mean in this context?

What we heard was of the importance of the right checks and balances; of a meaningful strategy; of the need to avoid micro management; and of how to deal with overbearing and autocratic leaders. All of our speakers provided an insight, based on their experiences, into what skills and attitudes trustees should bring to this task and how to balance competing needs.

First of all, there was agreement that trustees must be engaged and have a clear understanding of the services the charity provides – this was a lesson from the collapse of Kid’s Company, where board members were found to be too detached. Stephen Hickey suggested that trustees could read case files to familiarise themselves with the circumstances of beneficiaries. However, a balance is also necessary – one audience member noted that although informal operational involvement from trustees was sometimes an occurrence in very small charities, trustees should generally avoid micro-managing.

Related to this, there must be a balance in the relationship between chief executive and trustees. The board cannot just be a “rubber-stamp” on an “autocratic” chief executive – Paul Baldwin shed some light on one instance of this he had seen in his career. Trustees being willing to challenge the management and test consensuses can therefore be valuable, and the points they raise should be heard. However, excessive challenge on less relevant points can harm cohesion – it can be best to let the board itself moderate instances of this from individual trustees. Overall, trustees should remember that their role is to be a “critical friend” to the senior management.

Sound judgement and strategic oversight skills are valuable in trustees – senior managers of other charities can make good trustees, as they will often be better able to appreciate the realities of running a charity day to day. Financial and risk management expertise is a positive – too many charities do not understand their obligation to keep adequate reserves, despite the economic challenges the sector has faced in recent years (no doubt heightened now post-Brexit). While trustees are volunteers, our three speakers also discussed how to maintain an expected standard of professionalism in light of the gravity of the role – a code of conduct and the use of term limits were suggested.

Sector knowledge can be useful, but it is not the only relevant trait – independent insight is a virtue and can be a powerful counter to any conflicts of interest. At Eastside Primetimers, we have consistently argued that charities should analyse the position of their charity from the standpoint of its legally stated objectives and the wellbeing of beneficiaries. This can result in promoting the consideration of merger where necessary, rather than organisational ‘sustainability’ for its own sake.

Finally though, the chairs also stressed that they’ve felt that serving as a trustee has been rewarding, developmental and a great privilege – Paul shared with us that one member of staff told him that crucial changes that saw his charity through a difficult period “wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for you”.

You can read about our governance and recruitment services here. The next part of our seminar programme, about social business, is being held at our offices on Tuesday 19th July at 5pm – read here for more details.

Eastside Primetimers

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