Beth Clarke circle

Beth Clarke

Former Programme Manager, CAF Resilience

Charities Aid Foundation

Critical Lessons for Charity Trustees

2 April 2019

I became a trustee of a small charity a couple of years ago (income under £200k with three staff – only one of whom was full time). Currently we’re closing the charity down and transferring the work to another larger charity, and it’s been an uncomfortable and difficult process.

No one becomes a trustee thinking this is what will happen and it’s certainly been a learning curve. It came to the point where as a board we looked at our operating model and the changing funding landscape and had to make the difficult decision. Rather than continue and risk getting to the point of crisis closure, it was better for the beneficiaries that we began a planned handover and legacy programme which would allow the work to continue within a new ‘home’.

Following our final board meeting we ran a session to look at what we had learnt. The process of giving feedback on being a member of a trustee board was incredibly useful and prompted some really valuable conversations. We came out saying we wished we’d done this more regularly.

My fellow trustees are graciously allowing me to share this so that others can learn from our experiences. I’ve taken our feedback, blended it with my experience as part of the CAF Advisory team, and turned it into five key lessons for trustees:

1  Issues don’t surface unless people are given space and permission

When heavily focused towards tasks, board meetings can stifle energy and kill the opportunity to challenge and explore.

In retrospect we felt that we could have spent more time discussing strategy and vision. It would have been better to create more subgroups, perhaps, or assign trustees to take on task-based items and simply report back with recommendations. 

Four meetings a year are not many. In common with many charities, papers weren’t always submitted in enough time for them to be fully reviewed and this lost us time in meetings where ground was re-covered.

We wished we had been more protective of our board meeting agendas to hold more time to create space. Without focusing on our mission and curiously 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  Trust and connection between trustees takes time to build but is crucial

One of the highlights of the experience of being a trustee for many of us was the annual board days. This ‘open’ time together without a list of tasks and decisions (as important and necessary as these are!) really raised our energy levels. It helped us bond, feel committed to the vision and keen to volunteer time. Following these sessions, trustees were more likely to feel confident in their role and value their own ability to contribute to decisions and discussions.

After the decision to close was made, there was a lot of soul searching as to whether it could have been prevented. When the funding issue became more critical, it became evident that there were several of us who had felt unclear about the same things.

But none of us had properly raised this. We felt like we were alone in thinking it. Had we all been more transparent and asked the “silly” question, we would have got to the root of some issues earlier. 

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

3  Have an eye on the bigger picture (ie the mission!)

It is incredibly difficult for any board to get the right balance on how much involvement they need in the day to day running of a charity. But the smaller the staff team the more difficult this balance can be. Whilst a micro-managing Chair is never a recipe for CEO success, performance management and accountability are vital. At times we as a board acknowledged 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 skills of the staff would also need to change, and to proactively offer them support and training.

In hindsight, sometimes the board 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 helped us to better support staff to balance the day to day running with longer term mission development. 

4   Maintain a professional relationship with staff

Working with small charities, you sometimes see that trustees will build personal relationships with the leadership team, particularly the CEO. When you become friends with people it can be challenging to navigate that personal/professional relationship. Particularly when it comes to making tough decisions about the charity or providing candid, constructive feedback, which is critical for the growth of the leader and the charity. Positive relationships are a fantastic part of working and volunteering in the sector, but ultimately boundaries need to be in place.

The other side of this coin is that others, aside from the CEO, do need an appropriate mechanism to be heard directly by the board.  We wish we’d given more opportunity to volunteers and staff to give direct feedback as this would have benefited our knowledge of what was going on at ground level.

5  Momentum is enabled through clear roles and responsibilities

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

Spending time ensuring that everyone on the board understands their role and responsibility as a trustee is a prerequisite. However, it is essential that on top of the generic roles, each person is clear about what they individually bring to the charity.

We found that several trustees would have been more confident in bringing challenge or opinions had they been sure that they were welcome. For example, those with a corporate background felt they didn’t know enough about the charity sector, when in fact their knowledge and instincts were still very relevant, but the rest of us didn’t know that they were holding back. Having regular ‘off-line’ catch ups with other board members would help with this and with building connection between the trustees.

To be able to respond to change, you need to frequently revisit who on the board has responsibility for each area. If it’s unclear who is doing what then time is wasted or one person ends up doing everything.

As trustees are all volunteers, it’s worth considering drawing up an agreement of engagement. This will help addresses what happens when things aren’t done and how trustees are expected to challenge constructively.

Over to you

So now it’s over to you. How well does your charity’s board communicate and function?  Your instinctive response may be positive, but ask yourself when was the last time a thorny issue was raised and really addressed?

I’ve learnt that respectful disagreement is healthy when it leads to the honest airing of concerns, and to improving the outcomes of the charity. Without it not all ideas are heard, risks are not fully debated and issues are not brought to the surface. Many of us dislike having difficult and sensitive conversations but for a board of trustees it’s hugely important.

I hope our recent experience and the lessons we learnt help those of you who are trustees or board members to avoid some of the mistakes we made.

This blog post was first published in September 2018.