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How to keep learning

Many boards are reluctant to ask for feedback

For many trustees, a charity board is their only unpaid non-executive role in a busy portfolio career that spans three or four additional roles. Nevertheless, several chief executives and board development experts who contributed their experience to this report, observed that trustees sometimes struggle to translate their corporate skills to the context of a charity board. This appears to be a challenge especially where risk appetite and long-term strategic thinking are concerned.

One board development expert we interviewed found that trustees’ visions of themselves were often strongly and emotionally intertwined with their charity work. Succeeding in everything they do on the board therefore becomes personally very important to many trustees.

This can lead to a reluctance to ask for feedback or seek out more formal board development support. Some experienced chairs of medium or large UK charities have never sought out systematic feedback on their chairing – be it internally or externally, informally or formally.


Internal processes for learning and development

Without feedback, decision-makers are stumbling in the dark, with no chance of learning whether what they are doing is working. Many trustees understand this and recognise that creating the right kind of charity in a changing economic, social, political and public health landscape requires a mindset of continuous learning.

We spoke to numerous chairs who have put in place different formal and informal mechanisms for evaluation and development, both of themselves and for the board as a whole:

  • Having a post-meeting debrief with some trustees to review what worked and what didn’t.
  • Appointing a vice chair and including feedback on chairing and broader meeting management in their remit. This role can also be given to a board secretary.
  • Considering ’willingness and ability to give feedback’ as a criterion in trustee recruitment.
  • Annually requiring each trustee to review their remit, review their year and set out their agenda for the next year.
  • Holding a trustees-only session as part of an annual retreat, which includes 1-1 and whole-team effectiveness reviews as well as team building exercises.
  • Asking for feedback from the executive team on the board’s performance, including agreeing on necessary changes.


Using external support for a fresh view

Every so often, an externally facilitated governance review can help a board take a step back and appreciate bigger issues like organisational culture, roles and responsibilities, values, decision-making processes, and the skills and experiences represented on the board.

It is essential, throughout any externally facilitated board development exercise on strategy or decision-making processes, to engage trustees deeply. Good facilitation will foster a sense of ownership and buy-in across the board. The extent of engagement with trustees will make or break any board development process. It should be you and your charities who are left in charge of any changes, not the consultant.

External input is important. If you’re going to be serious about good governance, invite someone in to observe your meetings, get feedback, act on it. Filling in a homemade questionnaire is better than nothing, but periodically it is a good idea get external support.


Use validated learning to create incremental change

Many governing bodies may be reluctant to review their decision-making processes. Instead they will say: “When we are very busy, how can we take time to do these things?” Throughout this guide, we have introduced you to many small and low-risk changes that you can trial in your charity ­– especially during a period of uncertainty and change.

Made popular by Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup, validated learning is a technique to bring about change through often small and low-risk ‘experiments’.

Determine what you would like to see change:

  • Be specific about what improvement would look like.
  • Test a new tool or approach.
  • Evaluate its effect against your improvement criteria.
  • Decide whether to pivot (and try something else) or prevail.

Boards often do not have the time or headspace to take on big changes in how they make decisions. But by making small adjustments to your processes, you can elicit incremental sustainable change.

The truth is that one-off exercises do not create the core infrastructure charities need to become truly decisive and effective. For that, we need to build effective decision-making habits bit by bit.

Don’t expect to go from zero to ten; also be satisfied with a journey of continuous improvement and learning.