Analysis: The case for appraising both the board and individual trustees

The reluctance of some charity trustee boards to do them can be damaging, writes Sam Burne James


Annual performance appraisals are standard practice for employees in all sectors, but some charity trustee boards can be reluctant to do them.

Published in April, the Board Appraisal Good Practice Guide by Fiona Ash, a consultant at the Cass Centre for Charity Effectiveness, says such reluctance is damaging. It argues that boards "can only achieve optimum effectiveness if systems for regular review are in place". Indeed, the guide suggests that boards put the requirement to attend performance reviews into their trustee codes of conduct or role profiles to create "an expectation from the outset that this activity will be part of the role".

Ash's guide divides appraisals into two separate activities - whole-board performance reviews and appraisals of individual trustees. It says the former should include assessment of elements such as the board's contribution to the organisation's strategy, its level of understanding of its internal and external operating environment, and its processes and structures.

The guide also suggests that whole-board reviews can be made into an ongoing process, with time at the end of each board meeting to discuss which items on the meeting's agenda were useful or how the board performed as a team during the meeting.

The guide says some trustees feel uneasy about individual appraisals: "the phrase 'we are only volunteers' is often heard in this context," it says. But it stresses that appraisals should be seen positively and presented as an opportunity for "enabling the board to improve, rather than as a negative or judgemental activity".

Linda Laurance, a governance consultant, says this last point is important. "The emphasis throughout should be that it is an enhancing and enabling process, not about looking for flaws," she says. She approves of including an element of appraisal in each board meeting, rather than making it an isolated, annual process. "This cannot be something that just sits on a shelf and is picked up once a year," she says.

Both Laurance and Judith Rich, another consultant, say the guide is helpful, although Rich suggests it "seems geared more to the larger charities".

There is no specific requirement for boards to carry out appraisals. But Neal Green, a senior policy officer at the Charity Commission, says it can improve board effectiveness. "It's good that this guide starts by linking to the charity's mission and strategic aims," he says. "Better governance isn't an end in itself; the point of being more effective is to deliver your purposes more effectively."

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