Governance is an issue that comes up time and time again with both the charities and business members we bring together at Pilotlight. Working as we do with small charities, we see many struggling to get the right mix of skills when it comes to recruiting trustees. Of course this is not just an issue that small charities face – many large national charities have admitted they also find it difficult to get the right people and the debate on paying trustees has never been livelier. Lesley-Anne Alexander, chief executive of the RNIB, was recently quoted as saying: ‘The days of the landed gentry who have time to do charity work are long gone. We’d welcome a climate where paying trustees was accepted.’ (Third Sector, 20th November 2012)
There has never been a more crucial time for charities to have a skilled and talented board to give them the support and leadership they need to help steer them through a tough funding environment. So what did our business leaders focus on when it came to discussing these issues at a recent Pilotlight event?
Establishing and refreshing the board
A big component of starting up a charity is the task of forming the first board of trustees. A pattern we often see involves a founder initially co-opting friends for these roles. This is exactly what Phil Fox did when he set up the Outside Edge Theatre Company; it meant that in the beginning most of his trustees had very little understanding of how to run a charity and set up its constitution. Phil says it was vital to get them up to speed and it has also been important to refresh the board and bring in new trustees who are able to question key points. ‘One new trustee started talking to the chair about the constitution, which was 13 years old, and they went through it with a fine-tooth comb. They saw things that needed updating and they are now having it rewritten. With the constitution you may think “I’ll just push that in a drawer”, but actually work like that is the heart of the whole organisation. It’s essential.’
The make-up of a board should certainly change as the needs of the charity develop. Organisations typically follow a four-stage cycle: survival, sustainability, scaling up and stale. Governance may need to operate differently depending on where a charity is in the cycle. For instance, an organisation in the survival stage may benefit from trustees who are prepared to get more involved and ‘roll their sleeves up’ to get things done. Reviewing the constitution can be a way to make changes to governance processes. It can also be a very useful way of bringing up the need for change, especially with long-serving members of the board who may be reluctant to step away. In this instance it can be helpful to de-personalise the situation by looking at the objectives that need to be achieved and breaking them down into the specific skills or competencies required to get the job done.
We often find at Pilotlight that there can be particular difficulty with boards that have restrictions on the type of trustees they can recruit. Service-user-led boards can bring many benefits, but they can also make it difficult to attract the right mix of trustees, especially as the pool of potential candidates is narrower. As a youth-led organisation, The British Youth Council (BYC) has 13 board members all aged 25 and under, who serve for a maximum of two years. As former chair of the BYC, Liam Preston was candid about some of the challenges he and his board faced. The unusually young age of the board meant that Liam was working with trustees with no board-level experience. It also made it even more difficult for him to find a good mix of skilled people and meant that he built relationships with members who would then, inevitably, move on. Yet it was the unique nature of the board that ultimately led to its success and won them the Third Sector award for ‘Trustee Board of the Year’. And Liam pointed out the positives from having a youthful board: they are often bolder and braver when decision-making; they understand the issues BYC face; and a two-year tenure means the board is constantly able to review its approach and refresh accordingly.
The CEO/chair relationship
A good working relationship between the CEO and chair is essential for any charity to thrive and any breakdown in this relationship needs to be dealt with quickly. Chairs need to make sure that they have the time to put in to the job, as many can find themselves having day-to-day contact with their chief executive. At BYC one potential challenge was the age gap between the chair and the CEO. Mentoring support for a chair is often a good way of helping them work through any issues in a safe setting while also giving them valuable feedback and advice on their approach.
Finally, for charities to get the best from their board, trustees need to have varied and complementary skills. They also need to be prepared to: put in Time, be Reliable, have Understanding, give Strategic leadership, be Thorough, Engage with the charity and have Enthusiasm. As Phil Fox says: ‘A great trustee is like a tightrope walker, having to balance administrative demands, while allowing the frontline work to happen as freely as possible at the same time.’
Gillian Murray is deputy chief executive at Pilotlight