Lessons for trustees from public investigations


Kate Sayer


The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) recently published two reports on charities – one on the fundraising scandals and one on Kids Company. For well-run boards, there may be nothing new, but here are some thoughts on some lessons to draw from these reports for charity trustees with an international focus.

Getting the right board and the board right
You need to have the right people on the board. Yes, it’s useful to have a lawyer and an accountant, but you need people who have first-hand knowledge of the work of the charity and bring relevant experience to discussions. If you work internationally, how do you get input from the people and places where you work?

Get the balance right between continuity and fresh board members. It is important to retain knowledge but you need to manage trustee succession. It is a golden rule that trustees should not serve for more than two terms. Good practice suggests that a term of three years is about right. This requires good planning, good inductions and trustee training. All too often, trustees stay in their roles because there is no-one to take over. But with support and training, others can be prepared for these positions, particularly the chair and treasurer roles. Some charities have a vice-chair role, with assumed succession into the chair role after one term. Rolling succession like this will work for some charities, and might be a good model for the treasurer role too.

Translating values into action
Trustees and staff must share the values that underpin all that the organisation does. Getting the right skills and knowledge is one thing, but it is becoming obvious that the banking industry is not the only sector that needs to pay attention to culture. NGOs have been very good at articulating values and recruiting people who are committed to the cause, but there is more. You need to be committed to the same values and to living those values.

In the first instance, individuals can be very committed to their own beliefs, but these are not quite the same as the charity’s values. The differences may not be noticeable at first, but can be exposed when tested. For example, the chair of an organisation decided to publish a statement condemning the building by Israelis of settlements on the West Bank. This was the expression of personal beliefs, not those of the charity. Other board members may or may not have agreed with the stance, but it was inappropriate for that charity to have a view at all about this particular issue. In developing statements about the values of the organisation, it is useful to bring them to life with real situations and differentiate between charity values and personal beliefs.

In the second instance, the translation of shared values into strategy, business plans and work plans can cause you to trip and fall. Inadvertently, trustees can agree two or more things that are in contradiction with each other. For example, trustees can agree a code of good fundraising practice which promises not to harass people with too many phone calls. At the next meeting they approve a budget which includes a target for fundraising. The head of individual giving is charged with raising a certain amount of money to meet the target. They outsource some of the recruitment of new donors and adopt the standard contract, which includes performance targets for the contractor requiring them to make a certain number of phone calls to prospective donors. What’s to stop the contractor harassing people? It’s not deliberate or negligent, but the result is the same – the organisation is not living its values.

Be curious. Be particularly curious about outcomes and impact
Trustees need to invest in proper research and evaluation to give them evidence of outcomes. Very often charities do undertake a significant amount of evaluation, but lessons are not always learned and acted upon.

This might include unforeseen effects. For example, it is now understood that shipping in food to troubled areas undermines the effective operation of normal markets for food – better to give cash aid after just a few days in most emergency situations. Do we know enough about the potential harm of our charity’s work?

There is now a lot of information from many different sources and we can learn from others as well as from studies of our own work. Trustees can play an incredibly important role in asking questions about the impact of the charity’s work. If we understand the results of our work better, then we are able to make better decisions about where to allocate resources and spend more effort.

Kate Sayer is a partner, Sayer Vincent.

Tagged in: Charity trustees

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