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Good governance for all, charities big and small

By Fiona Spellman 4 November 2015

In my experience, our voluntary sector is filled with bright, dedicated professionals who work tirelessly to solve some of the most difficult challenges society faces. And yet, particularly within small charities, taking the time to critically evaluate your activities, scan the horizon for potential new challenges, and constantly review how your activities fit into the strategic plan… I mean seriously, who has the time? The answer lies, of course, in good governance.

Where small charities have the advantage

I am delighted to have been invited as one of the judges for the Charity Governance Awards this year, particularly because the very smallest charities are eligible to apply. There is no doubt that small charities like the ones I work for face a number of unique challenges. From service delivery, to fundraising, to strategy and financial planning, smaller charities usually find themselves doing bits of lots of things, but struggling to strike the right balance.

Yet when I spoke recently at an NPC event on trusteeship, I was struck by the huge advantages that many small charities enjoy when ensuring good governance. If you are small you should also be agile; you have no committees or regions to cajole. And if you are small because you are a new charity, you’ll have the added benefit of no long history to either preserve or challenge.

Often this means that small charities have an almost blank canvas onto which they can embed good governance and impact measurement practice. Yes, there will always be limited time and resources, but the sooner you start, the easier this will be. Talk to someone at a larger or longer-serving charity and you’ll learn that trying to implement these things later down the line is much harder.

What good governance looks like

So what is meant by good governance? For me, whether you’re a large or a small charity, good governance is synonymous with good decision-making—and good decision-making starts with a shared understanding of what you are trying to achieve.

Last year, I went to an away day for all staff and trustees to develop a theory of change for TalentEd. Several hours later we emerged with something very important which has impacted significantly on our activities ever since. For the first time, we all understood what we were working for.

A theory of change is just a starting point of course. For good governance to really work, you also need a highly skilled board of trustees who understand how to ask the right questions. Perhaps more importantly, they must know how to take on—as well as challenge—some of the answers to those questions.

Healthy relationships between trustees and staff is also crucial. Through my two roles, I enjoy positions on both sides of the relationship; an experience I would recommend to anyone who can give the time. What I’ve learned as a result is that trustees and senior management should have a clear understanding of the charity’s potential weaknesses as well as its strengths. They should also see the overall performance of the charity as a shared endeavour. Finally, trustees must know how their role differs from that of the senior management team, and must manage that relationship appropriately.

Good governance is crucial to a good charity. Through these awards, I look forward to helping to shine a spotlight on some of the best governance in charities—and, more crucially, the impact this has on the communities they serve.

If your board is helping your charity achieve more, why not nominate them for a Charity Governance Award?