What makes a winner on charity governance?

By Alex Miller 10 December 2019 4 minute read

Charities which have great governance often have trustees that remain resolutely focussed on resolving issues and overcoming obstacles. There needs to be a finely tuned balance between challenge and support on a board of trustees, and the combination of the two goes hand in hand with improving impact.

Each year, the Charity Governance Awards reward exceptional governance. Hosted by The Clothworkers’ Company, in collaboration with Reach Volunteering, Prospectus and NPC, the awards celebrate a variety of achievements, including charities that have improved their impact.

Thomas Lawson, Chief Executive of Turn2us and previously the Chief Executive of Leap Confronting Conflict and the Chair of the Centre For Youth Impact, will be judging the Charity Governance Awards for the second time when he joins the 2020 judging panel for the Improving Impact (4-25 paid staff) category. With entries for the next instalment of the awards now open, we sat down with him to discuss what a winner looks like and why charities with that perfect balance on their board are exceptional.

For Thomas, great governance involves a single-minded focus on improving impact, high-quality and constructive relationships between the board and staff, and an awareness of the inner workings of the organisation by the trustees.

‘Successful governance is characterised by a high-quality relationship between the chair and the chief executive, based on respect and trust; support; challenge; and a single-minded focus on improving the impact of the organisation.

Secondly, the quality of the relationship between the board and the executive should be healthy and also built around respect and trust. The quality of board discussions should not be based on scrutiny (there shouldn’t be a need for this if the papers are open and explicit about successes, challenges and solutions) but rather robust support and challenge. If the end point of any conversation on the board does not concern impact at its heart, it may not be relevant.

Finally, trustees should have enough insight into the operations of their organisation so that they can provide constructive, strategic support to the chief executive. However, they should guard against being directly involved in the charity’s daily operations—unless the charity has a management board because there are only a few or no members of staff. It’s a difficult balance but an important distinction that is crucial to good governance.’

So, how will your organisation’s entry to the Charity Governance Awards be judged? The categories this year include: Board Diversity and Inclusion, Embracing Digital, Embracing Opportunity and Harnessing Risk, Managing Turnaround, and Improving Impact.

‘What the panel will look for in my category is effective impact assessment—in order to improve a charity’s impact, not prove it. As we judge, we will want to see boards that are offering advice on how their charity can analyse and draw out insights from its impact measurement. Put simply, not everything that you can count matters, and not everything that matters can be counted. Boards that seek proportionate effort in impact assessment for the size of their organisation will be the most effective.

They should be looking at what their impact is telling them, what can be derived from it and how that can be used to improve their impact.’

And if you’re still not convinced about getting involved, here’s why Thomas thinks you should get your application in now.

‘The simple act of applying for the awards will itself be instructive to your charity. You will learn and reflect as you run through the questions on the entry form and, if you are shortlisted (and I speak from experience from when we won a Charity Governance Award when I was at Leap Confronting Conflict), the recognition you receive is very valuable to the health of the organisation.

For me, the best part of the awards is learning from the exceptional examples of good governance that we read about when we sit down and judge these awards. I have learnt that just because an organisation is small, that does not mean that it cannot do brilliant impact assessment. How smaller charities achieve this with their limited resources is not only an inspiration but a lesson to larger charities.’

Entries for 2020 are now closed. You can see the list of all the shortlisted charities here.

'Not everything that you can count matters, and not everything that matters can be counted' - @ThomasJLawson writing about the role of impact assessment in charity governance in this @NPCthinks blog Click To Tweet