Beth Clarke circle

Beth Clarke

Former Programme Manager, CAF Resilience

Charities Aid Foundation

Five critical lessons for charity trustees

My time as a trustee of a small charity (income under £200k, with three staff – only one of whom was full time) didn’t end as I had expected. A few years ago, we closed the charity down and transferred the work to another larger charity – a difficult and uncomfortable process.

We came to a point as a board where we looked at our operating model and the changing funding landscape and had to make the difficult decision. Rather than risk getting to the point of crisis closure, we began a planned handover and legacy programme to allow the work to continue for the beneficiaries in a new ‘home’.

Our final board meeting was followed by a session to cover what we had learned over the years. That process of feeding back on being a trustee was incredibly useful and prompted some really valuable conversations. We realised that we should have done this more regularly.

My fellow trustees graciously allowed me to share these points so that others can learn from our experiences at a time when charities are facing increased challenges. I’ve used our learnings, blended it with my experience as part of the CAF Advisory team, to come up with five key lessons for trustees:

1.  Create space and permission for issues to surface

When focused on tasks, board meetings can stifle energy and suppress the opportunity to challenge and explore.

In hindsight, we felt more time could have been spent discussing strategy and vision. We could have created more subgroups or assigned trustees to take on task-based items and simply report back with recommendations. 

Four meetings a year is not many. Like many charities, papers weren’t always submitted with enough time to be fully reviewed, which lost us time in meetings as ground was re-covered. We wished we’d been more protective of our meeting agendas to have more time to create space. Without focusing on our mission and exploring alternatives to what we were doing, trustees were more inclined to see their role as a practical one and focus on the next steps of the path we were on, rather than raise challenge. 

2. Take time to build trust and connection between trustees

For many of us, one of the highlights of being a trustee was our annual board days. This time together without a list of tasks and decisions (albeit important and necessary) really boosted our energy. It helped us bond, feel committed to the vision and keen to volunteer. Following these sessions, trustees were more likely to feel confident in their role and value their contributions to decisions and discussions.

After we made the decision to close, we thought long and hard about whether it could have been prevented. When the funding issue became more critical, it was evident that several of us had felt unclear about the same things.

But none of us properly raised this at the time. We felt we were alone in thinking it. Had we all been more transparent and asked the ‘silly’ question, we may have reached the root of some issues far earlier. 

When things came to a head and we faced the decision to close, we had some of the most honest conversations we had ever had. It made me realise that we can often remain polite and respectful of others to the detriment of the organisation.

3. Keep an eye on the bigger picture

It’s often hard for a board to reach the right balance on how much involvement a charity needs in the day to day operations – and the smaller the staff team, the harder this balance can be. Although a micro-managing chair of the board is never a recipe for success, performance management and accountability are crucial. At times, we as a board recognised that we struggled to get this balance right.

As the charity and the landscape it operated in changed, we could have done more to recognise that the staff’s skills would also need to change and to proactively offer them support and training.

Looking back, sometimes we could also have been closer to the business model, so that when we made strategic decisions we fully appreciated the practical implications for staff. This would have enabled us to better support staff in balancing the everyday operations with longer-term mission development. 

4. Maintain a professional relationship with staff

It’s often the case in small charities that trustees build personal relationships with the leadership team, particularly the CEO. But it can be challenging to navigate that personal/professional relationship when you become friends with someone, particularly when making tough decisions or providing candid, constructive feedback, which is critical for the growth of both the leadership and the charity. Positive relationships are a wonderful part of working and volunteering in the charity sector, but ultimately boundaries need to be in place.

On the flip side, other members of staff need a suitable mechanism to be heard by the board. We wish we’d given more opportunity to volunteers and staff to provide direct feedback so we had more knowledge of what was going on at ground level.

5. Gain momentum with clear roles and responsibilities

When a charity board consists of volunteers and there are few staff, it can feel as though there aren’t enough resources to put plans into action. It can be hard to create agility and respond quickly to both opportunities and threats. 

Making time to ensure that everyone on the board understands their role and responsibility as a trustee is a prerequisite. But it’s also essential that on top of the generic roles, everyone is clear about what they individually bring to the charity.

We realised that several of our trustees would have been more confident offering challenge or opinions had they been sure that they were welcome. For instance, those from a corporate background held back as they felt they didn’t know enough about the charity sector, when in fact their knowledge and instincts were still very valid. Having regular ‘offline’ catch-ups with other board members would help with this and with building connection between trustees.

To be able to respond to change, you need to regularly revisit which board members have responsibility for each area. If it’s unclear then time is wasted or one person will end up doing everything.

Trustees are all volunteers, so it’s worth drawing up an agreement of engagement to address what happens when things aren’t done or how trustees are expected to challenge constructively.

Over to you

So now it’s over to you. Are you satisfied with how well your charity’s board communicates and functions? Instinctively you may say yes, but ask yourself when was the last time a thorny issue was raised and really addressed.

I’ve learned that respectful disagreement is healthy when it leads to airing honest concerns and to improving the charity, its work and outcomes. Without it not all ideas are heard, risks are not fully discussed and issues are not brought to the surface. Most of us dislike being part of difficult conversations, but for a board of trustees it’s arguably one of the most important things we can do for our charities.

I hope our experiences and the lessons we’ve learned are of benefit to those of you who are trustees or board members in avoiding some of the mistakes we made.