This week is Trustees’ Week 2016. As a consultant with Eastside Primetimers, my main current project is working as a Programme Manager on 33 projects being delivered under the Local Sustainability Fund, which helps medium-sized VCSEs review and transform their operating models. Relatively few of these projects specifically sought support to enhance governance arrangements, but there are several where this requirement has emerged over time or is implicit in the work, showing how good governance is often central to the work charities do, but is not always prioritised.

This experience has led me to reflect on the role a strong, multi-talented board can play in moving their charity towards a more sustainable future.

1) Setting strategy and prioritisation

Trustees’ unique role in scrutinising their charity’s options for achieving long-term impact, and providing a clear strategy to define that focus over several years, is undoubtedly the key contribution they can make.  But to do this properly, a Board also needs to be willing to review its own effectiveness and acknowledge where changes need to be made to develop skills, bring in new insights or update its approach to meeting and decision making.

2) Support

While implementing the strategy is the role of operational staff, the trustees are responsible for ensuring that the charity or social enterprise is sufficiently resourced in manpower, equipment and technology to do so. A Board’s ability to create a relationship with the Executive Team which empowers them to implement the strategy, while also allowing open discussions as challenges arise, is also essential here.

3) Challenge

Equally important in creating this strong association is the Board’s role in holding the Executive Team to account for implementing objectives and, where needed, employing a “critical friend” approach to proposals, budgets and key decisions to flush out inconsistencies and provide an objective viewpoint.

4) Assessing and managing risk

Building on these key discussions, the Board should be able to gather the information needed to assess how best to safeguard future activities, whilst giving sufficient scope for development and innovation where this might lead to stronger outcomes.

Trustee Boards are often accused of being too risk averse. However, a well-functioning Board can use the combined knowledge and expertise of its members and objective oversight to set a framework for calculated risk taking, with a view to continually improving services.  This might include commencing new activities or expanding delivery to new areas, or seeking to change the funding mix through trading or seeking investment.

5) Taking decisive action

An essential partner to this risk role is a Board’s ability to take prompt and decisive action either where the current model is no longer viable or risks develop into significant threats, or by capitalising on emerging opportunities.

6) Representation and championing

By acting as strong advocates for their organisations, Trustees can demonstrate the value of the support being delivered, creating new connections and enhancing an organisation’s profile. They can also build on their own contacts to bring in new ideas, skills, partnerships and potentially even financial support.

7) Seeking mergers or winding down

This is not always instinctive in the sector, but we should not assume that safeguarding sustainability automatically implies the continued existence of an independent organisation. If we consider the central aspiration of any charity or social enterprise to be providing the best outcomes for the long term – and we should – then there are clearly instances where joining forces or passing on the management and delivery of services to an alternative provider can be the best way to achieve this objective.

Eastside Primetimers has done significant work to assess the key qualities required to successfully implement a merger and this month will be launching our 2015/6 Good Merger Index, which argues strongly that charity trustees should consider it their duty to routinely consider the case for merger, even if it is subsequently ruled out. More trustee boards be looking beyond just surviving independently, and instead towards truly thriving in a new structure.

Trustees’ Week 2016 is November 7th to November 13th. Nikki Wilson is an Eastside Primetimers member (consultant) and oversees our Local Sustainability Fund work

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