Charity trustees have come in for some stick recently. Inept trustees are driving chief executives out of the sector, they interfere in fundraising, and as one anonymous chief executive put it, powerful trustees are a nightmare.
Clearly the role of volunteer charity trustees invokes strong views.
But the issue is nothing new, nor is it unique. My first time, many years ago, as a school governor is a case in point. I was appointed by the local authority, I received no training or support, and I was not made welcome by the chair or my fellow governors. Lengthy meetings were dominated by two individuals who appeared not to notice that the school already had its own head teacher. It was a short-lived experience, not to be repeated for some time.
More recently I saw board members come and go on the Council of a national membership organisation. I was there as a paid member of staff, but a few of the lay members seemed only to be involved because it looked good on their CV, or because it provided yet another networking opportunity.
So I can understand the scepticism regarding trustees. But does all the fault lie with the trustee, or are there other factors to consider? After all, as another writer points out, making a charity run well is not easy, and replacing a volunteer board with a corporate style unitary board will not alleviate the problem of big egos. So what can be done to make trustees more effective?
Paying trustees is one suggestion. I can see some merit in this, but it still doesn’t guarantee that your trustee will be better prepared for meetings, or that they will no longer want to talk about the cost and type of the printer ink you use.
Others have suggested a local code of practice. The trustee signs up to the code which makes explicit their role and boundaries in relation to the organisation. I like this idea also, but it could fall away without an ongoing awareness and commitment to the code.
Of course proper selection and induction of trustees is crucial. As too is appropriate training and continuing professional development where there are skills gaps that need to be met. But trustees are not always good at attending training; and perhaps we need also to look at how and where such training is delivered.
But should we not also look at our own role as paid staff? Trustees are volunteers, with little time to plough through lengthy reports; and I daresay like many of us, they are put off by long agendas and boring meetings. So surely as paid staff we owe it to trustees to make things easier. Let us keep agendas short, let us keep reports brief and to the point, and let us have clear recommendations for action to put before them. Combine this with effective chairing (perhaps a trustee training need?), good planning for meetings, and ongoing engagement with the trustees; and a healthy working relationship is most definitely possible.
Sure, the charity chief executive with a challenging board is in a very difficult position. It can be time consuming and stressful to take them on; and sometimes, the only realistic option might be to leave. In my experience, help from a trade union is essential before things get this bad.
Ultimately though, trustees and paid staff have to work together, so the chief executive in particular must from day one cultivate effective working relationships with members of the board and senior staff. I know it isn’t easy; and I know it sometimes fails. Yet despite this, it works well for the majority of charities, for the majority of the time.