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Doing trusteeship differently

By Claire Gordon 9 January 2024 4 minute read

In December 2023, we hosted an event in partnership with the Clothworkers Company exploring innovative approaches to governance. NPC’s Director of Innovation & Development, Tris Lumley, was joined by Abigail Woodman, Chair of East London Waterworks Park and Seth Scafe-Smith, trustee of Theatrum Mundi. In this blog, Claire Gordon, shares some key points from the discussion. 

The traditional model of charity trusteeship raises questions for many organisations. Are volunteer trustees best placed to govern complex organisations? Can individuals separate from the day-to-day workings of a charity effectively provide oversight and scrutiny? And does such a hierarchical model fit with organisations rooted in more egalitarian or inclusive principles? 

During the event we explored some alternatives to the traditional model of trusteeship:  

A sociocratic model 

East London Waterworks Park Park (ELWP) chose sociocracy for their volunteer-led organisation, which is seeking to transform a brownfield site into a biodiverse community park. In a sociocratic model, members are organised into working groups (known as circles), and report into the main decision-making body (the hub), which is made up of all members. Decisions are made by consent, not consensus or majority, giving all members a voice and a veto. 

ELWP’s trustees are part of its governance circle and follow decisions made by the wider membership. The model is inclusive by design but provides a clear structure for organising and decision-making, with the Chair’s role being to find the path through.  

While many smaller organisations are taking this approach, there are a few examples from larger, more complex organisations, such as Rochdale Borough Council. 

East London Waterworks sociocratic model.

East London Waterworks sociocratic model.

Creating greater proximity 

The importance of embedding lived experience on boards is increasingly well understood, but how should we think about embedding the learned experience of practitioners.   

Theatrum Mundi aim to build more inclusive cities through research and experimentation. They have reshaped their board, so that all of their trustees are deeply experienced in the kinds of projects that they deliver, and the communities that they seek to engage. We heard about how this shift has created a more lateral organisation, which has opened up the space for greater transparency and problem-solving between the board and staff members. 

The organisation has experienced funding challenges in moving away from donor representation amongst its trustees. However, greater proximity also allows the board to understand and focus more on opportunities for the organisation to pursue its purpose. 

Dialogue is key 

Both speakers shared the importance of dialogue as a means to shift governance practices. For East London Waterworks Park, this means working in the open, enabled by technologies such as Slack. Ongoing conversation and feedback among members helps to highlight potential areas of disagreement early on. 

It was also noted that transitions in governance often emerge through crisis. The value of being preemptive and starting conversations ahead of such inflection points was highlighted. 

Bringing governance out of the shadows 

The event touched on the need to demystify trusteeship. Many don’t see themselves in the role and are often not considered. This can take time, coaching, and guidance—things which the traditional models of trusteeship don’t always allow space for. 

There is a sense that being a trustee is complex. It’s time consuming but if you give that time everyone can do it and flourish.

—Seth Scafe Smith, Theatrum Mundi 

The discussion underlined the importance of governance as a moving, breathing, evolving thing. Something which must fit with the values that an organisation holds, alongside the external demands placed on it by funders and the Charity Commission. 

You can find a recording of the event here. Please get in touch if you’re interested in innovations in governance, a topic we’re keen to carry on exploring in 2024. 

Our next trusteeship event in partnership with the Clothworkers Company is on 25 January 2024, when we’ll be looking at what it takes to create an effective board


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