Talking to trustees

By Clare Yeowart 24 November 2010

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might have noticed that charity trusteeship is a bit of a recurring theme for us. We believe trustees play a critical role in steering the direction of a charity, supporting its management team and overseeing the financial and practical aspects of running an organisation. Yes, it might be possible for charities to coast along with a ropey board for a while, but when the chips are down having the backing of a strong group of trustees really matters. So what should you do if trustees don’t pull their weight?

This question was clearly a concern for the trustees who took part in a series of seminars that NPC ran with The Clothworkers’ Company earlier this year. Our new report, Talking to trustees, which shares findings from these seminars, highlights some of the options for dealing with this—from getting recruitment right so that you have good trustees on board in the first place, to carrying out regular reviews that can provide opportunities for ‘refreshing’ the board. But what really struck me is that if you don’t have a good chair, you’re a bit stuck. After all, it is the chair that ultimately manages trustee recruitment and decides whether to devote time and resources to carrying out a board review. The buck stops with them.

Susan Ringwood, chief executive of the eating disorders charity beat, told an interesting story of how a funder had led to her charity changing its chair. This funder had made board renewal a condition of funding and had even paid for recruitment consultants to find a new chair. But not every charity has such an engaged and supportive funder.

How else should charities drive improvements to their boards? They don’t have shareholders who can push for change. A board review run by an external consultant may provide an opportunity to air difficult issues, but many charities simply can’t afford that.

As Talking to trustees shows, there are no easy answers. But beat’s experience has made me wonder whether funders should look more carefully at charity governance and, if it doesn’t seem up to scratch, consider how they can help a charity change. What do other charities and funders out there think?

PS Our work on trusteeship doesn’t stop here. We’re planning another three seminars with The Clothworkers’ Company for the first half of next year—further details will be on our website soon.