Ten questions to ask your board

By Matilda Macduff 22 June 2010

It can be easy to neglect trustee boards when analysing a charity’s impact, but a good trustee board can make or break a charity. External assessments are usually thorough but can be expensive. A more immediate and cheaper option is self-assessment, where the chair and board take a step back and ask some key questions of themselves and each other. To help with this NPC has drawn together a list of ten questions which provide a good place to start. We’ve outlined a few of these questions below. You can read the full list in our report, Board matters.

Do we have the right resources on our board?

  • Do we have the right skills? Are they being applied?
  • Do our board members have enough time to do the job properly?
  • How diverse are we?

Charities need people who are passionate, but they also need the right mix of practical skills and experience to make the organisation as effective as possible. At the first of our recent trustee seminars, Susan Ringwood, chief executive of the UK eating disorders charity Beat, talked about the danger of having a board dominated by former and current service users. While personal experience can be a real asset to an organisation, it can also make it difficult to separate emotions from the business of running a successful charity. Ringwood was able to vastly improve the charity’s effectiveness by, among other things, appointing new trustees with a broader skills base.

Does every board member understand his/her role and responsibility as a trustee generally?

  • Do they understand the contribution expected of them for this charity?

A pretty obvious one, perhaps, but good knowledge of what the role involves, the cause, and the charity’s outlook is essential. A good induction process is often the answer. Scottish homelessness charity Edinburgh Cyrenians was highlighted in NPC’s 2009 trusteeship report for its excellent induction process. The charity gives new recruits a document with information on the charity, legal responsibilities of trustees, role descriptions of the charity’s trustees, and information about other board members. It also includes a summary of the Good Governance Code. As well as this information, each new trustee also has meetings with the chair, the charity’s staff and projects.

How open and constructive are our relationships?

  • What are relationships like among board members?
  • What is the relationship like between the board and the management team?

Fostering a good relationship between board and management is essential to the smooth running of a charity. NPC has praised London charity Thames Reach as an example of good governance, where chair Ken Olisa and chief executive Jeremy Swain work together closely to ensure the charity’s success. However, the charity is determined that this close relationship should not deter other board members from challenging decisions, and Thames Reach has therefore also appointed one board member to work as a ‘senior independent director’. She oversees the relationships between the board members, and with the senior staff, and can be approached by any board member who wishes to raise concerns about board relationships and performance.