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The role of trustees in times of change, crisis and uncertainty

By Mona Abdul-Karim 12 January 2023 3 minute read

A recent seminar hosted by NPC, in partnership with The Clothworkers’ Company, looked at the role of trustees in governing charities during times of change, crisis and uncertainty. The seminar explored how trustees can balance managing risk and exploring opportunities, whilst ensuring a charity stays on mission.  

The event was chaired by Margery Infield, a Senior Consultant at NPC, and our speakers were: Adebayo Oyeniyi, Chair of Quo Vadis Trust and Head of Operations at Advance; Nigel Kippax, Head of Partnerships at Getting Onboard, Founder and Director of Charity Leaders and the Trustee Fellowship, and Chair of Herts Disability Sports Foundation; and Monika Waller, a Trustee at Richmond Mind.    

Charities have experienced many challenges in recent years, forcing them to navigate a great deal of change and uncertainty: from delivering services during an unprecedented health crisis, to navigating the cost-of-living crisis and the climate crisis. This has fundamentally changed the way that charities have had to deliver their services, playing a vital role in helping society cope.  

So how is the role of a trustee different in a time of crisis, change and uncertainty and what stays the same?   

There were three main themes that came up during the event:  

Putting beneficiaries first 

The first theme the panel explored was the importance of putting beneficiaries first and going back to the mission of the organisation.  

The role of a charity is to support those who need it most, therefore, a trustee should ensure that it serves its purpose, especially in times of crisis. Decision-making should always be based on the interests and needs of the beneficiaries. For trustees to be able to best serve their beneficiaries, they must be able to embrace change in times of crisis.  

“Change is constant and is more challenging in times of crisis and trustees must embrace change and respond to change”. – Adebayo Oyeniyi, Chair of Quo Vadis Trust (QVT)  

The work of QVT, a social housing charity, is a good example of trustees acting quickly, bravely and putting beneficiaries first in a time of crisis. QVT provide social housing, care and support for people living with mental health needs in South-East London. The charity recognised that they needed to act quickly when Covid-19 forced the country into lockdown, by developing a service aimed at getting rough sleepers off the streets when night shelters were closed. The service was a success and helped minimise Covid-19 infection rates, saving many lives.  

Balancing following protocol with taking risks  

Balancing following protocol with taking appropriate risks is another important function that trustees serve.  

Leadership decisions often involve following protocol, which guides trustees on how and what to do when solving problems. However, following protocol may not always be in the best interests of charity beneficiaries. Sometimes it’s important to take appropriate risks because this opens up opportunities for social change. However, as a trustee it’s also important that you ask the tough questions to avoid costly risks, because financial risk is higher during times of crisis.  

In responding to the pandemic, our event speakers learned that trustees should create confidence, not shy away from challenges, and take appropriate risks. For a charity to fulfil its purpose and grow its social impact, leaders must embrace change. This means that some risks need to be encouraged and accepted, not controlled and minimised.  

Listening to people with lived experience 

Finally, good decision-making requires diversity, the voice of beneficiaries and the full engagement of trustees in this process. This could be strengthened by having more people with lived experience on boards. Monika Waller told attendees how recruiting trustees with lived experience can bring unique perspectives to the Board and give a charity access to a wider talent pool—amongst many other benefits.  

“Be a change agent, start thinking about knowledge gaps your board should address”. – Monika Waller Trustee at Richmond Mind.  

Behavioural governance—which places less emphasis on structures and processes and more on behaviours is also important, especially when it comes to the role of trustees, and it’s vital that trustees collaborate with one another. A good board will be self-reflective, empowering trustees to develop and grow their role for example by listening to one another about their experiences. 

Our next online seminar for trustees will be on Combining lived and professional experience on boards. Join us at this free event on 9 February 2023


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