Since the outbreak of Covid, many charities have embraced hybrid working. Charities now need to review their governance practices in trustee boards to remain effective.
Since the outset of Covid-19 in the UK in March 2020, charities have undergone rapid changes in how they work. With most office-based staff working from home for significant periods of 2020 and 2021, 2022 has seen many charities grapple with their hybrid working policies in order to hold on to the best aspects of in person and remote working—and also to attract and retain the best talent. The Charity Digital Skills Report 2021 showed that 68% of charities are planning to adopt hybrid working for the long term.
Similarly, Covid-19 lockdowns saw a rapid shift to virtual governance, with the Corporate Governance & Insolvency Bill putting in place temporary provision for boards to meet and take decisions virtually, even if not permitted by a governing document.
However, as lockdowns become a more distant memory, many charities are yet to think strategically about hybrid governance in the same way that they have about hybrid working.
Charities should think through how hybrid governance can work best for their charity, to ensure that their governance is effective and legal. Crucially, charities should avoid immediately reverting to pre-pandemic practice, or sticking with ways of working that were set up in haste in March 2020: the same strategic thinking that is underway for staff teams should be undertaken for trustees.
Considerations for effective hybrid governance might include:
Making meetings legal
A crucial starting point for hybrid governance is to make sure that virtual board meetings, if they are here to stay for your charity, have a legal basis. The Corporate Governance & Insolvency Bill that allowed for virtual meetings in 2020 and 2021 is no longer in place, and the Charity Commission’s leniency around the matter has also come to an end.
Virtual meetings must now be permitted by your governing document, so charities may need to urgently make amendments to their Articles of Association for board meetings to be legal. To get you started, OSCR has released template wording for the relevant clauses in a governing document.
Depending on your board’s composition and your charity’s resources, in person, online or hybrid meetings may be most appropriate. Consider where your trustees are based; whether you have an obvious meeting place; and whether the charity can afford to reimburse travel expenses for board meetings.
Also think about the expertise you need on your board, and who you may be excluding by having a particular time and location of board meetings. Speak openly with your current trustees about the timings that work best for their needs, and during recruitment try to understand how different candidates’ needs may be best accommodated. This should be an ongoing dialogue, with the understanding that requirements will change.
The best ways of meeting are unlikely to be fixed and could shift depending on the agenda items, life-stage of your charity, or specific circumstances of your board members. It may be that you move between different forms of meeting.
Boosting engagement between meetings
With staff working flexibly and trustees more geographically dispersed, engagement between meetings will need to become more intentional. Your methods for engagement should be clearly articulated to all stakeholders, so that both staff and trustees know what to expect.
Try to segment the reasons for engagement between meetings—are trustees seeking information, or building relationships? For each segment, put in place intentional mechanisms, such as a set day where staff are in the office to meet trustees, or a clear way for trustees to request information from senior leadership staff.
Engagement is important for staff too—a move to virtual or hybrid working means boards risk appearing faceless and unreachable. Some boards find success with ‘lead trustee’ roles, where board members each take on ‘ownership’ of a particular aspect of the charity’s work, developing closer relationships with the relevant senior staff. However, it is important for boards not to lose sight of their individual and collective responsibilities.
Chairing hybrid meetings is a challenging art, requiring set expectations as to how conversations will be held and how decisions will be taken. Make clear in an agenda where items are for decision, and where points are for update or discussion only. Try to facilitate input from in person and online attendees equally during meetings, and if input is insufficient, consider instating a window after each meeting for further reflections and questions, or 1:1 calls to discuss particularly important areas.
With hybrid meetings, you should also consider actions that can be taken to prevent a two-tier board dynamic occurring, where those who regularly join in-person build stronger relationships and gain from conversations before and after formal meetings. This could include having video call channels open before and after the meeting for informal conversations or incorporating wholly in-person away-days at regular intervals.
Expectations around formal discussion, informal conversations and (most importantly) decision-making should be clearly articulated to your board.
When it comes to hybrid working, your trustees and your governance need to be considered in the same ways as your staff team. Work through these considerations to articulate a way of meeting that works for your organisation and evolves as you go forward. Hybrid thinking shouldn’t stop there. In time, charities will need to think about areas such as hybrid user involvement, service delivery, and fundraising activity. If you’re already thinking about these areas, let us know.