tight rope walker

Why charity boards need to adapt #TrusteesWeek

By Sue Wixley 10 November 2014

How much does working as trustee feel like treading a tightrope? It may not endanger life or limb but we should be mindful of the risks involved.

Like Nik Wallenda, who went for a stroll last week at 500ft above the city of Chicago, charity trustees have to contend with ever-changing winds—though ours are of the regulatory and political variety. Luckily, board meetings call for insight and diplomacy rather than derring-do and we don’t have to keep our eyes closed while we do it (as Wallenda did when crossing blindfolded between two city towers).

The sector’s regulator, the Charity Commission, is promising to pursue late filing of accounts and other wrong-doing much more proactively than ever before. It has also played with increasing the reporting requirements of charities. The Lobbying Act too has put many charity boards on alert, as they tread carefully around issues of political allegiances and campaigning.

Meanwhile, the shifting mood of the public threatens to unbalance of the charity sector. As a result of concerns about public trust in charities, among other things, charity boards are becoming more focused on issues of risk and reputation, transparency and accountability.

Responding collectively to these external changes is vital and the formation of the Understanding Charities Group, plus other sector responses, should help. But there is no substitute for individual charities standing up and explaining the thinking behind their key decisions and policies: from taking on government contracts to executive salaries, fundraising methods to data protection.

Charity trustees can help to clear up misperceptions and to build the reputation of their charity and of the sector as a whole. In particular, NPC has suggested that trustees could be more public about the principles and processes underlying their decisions on CEO pay. When the next row breaks out on this topic, it would be good to see more boards responding, given that this is their call rather than the chief exec’s.

We have also argued that the Charity Commission should consider re-drafting trustee obligations to focus less on acting in the interests of the charity and more in the interests of its core mission and those it serves. This would encourage a more strategic and long-term focus. It could also encourage trustees to seek greater collaboration, even mergers, with other organisations serving similar groups or causes.

As I know from my own trustee roles being on the board of a charity is not always easy but, given the enormous social and environmental problems we are looking to solve, it’s an important role. Let’s not exaggerate the job at hand but, to quote Philip Petit (another highwire artist), ‘let’s start working.’