Board Talk: Are family ties on the board a help or just a hindrance?

Julia Kaufmann and Nigel Siederer discuss whether it's wise to bring in your relatives

Board Talk
Board Talk

JK: As a starting point, I would definitely say that family ties on a board are a hindrance. Families are the mother of all cliques. If other trustees think that decisions about the charity are being taken in the pub or at home, they can lose confidence in the organisation.

NS: I think it depends on where the board is coming from. You always want trustees to be thinking independently about the interests of the charity, and if they've got a loyalty to each other it could get in the way. But in some circumstances it can work.

There is a quite large, growing charity I know of that had trouble finding a treasurer. After a while, one trustee cautiously suggested that his son, who had some financial experience, might be interested in the role. The other trustees interviewed him and were impressed, and he has turned out to be a very good trustee. He and his father served together well and there was no collusion between them. So I think it is difficult to say that family ties are necessarily a bad thing.

Julia KaufmannJK: I certainly don't think one would advise a charity to have family ties, though. I remember looking at funding applications when I was at BBC Children in Need. With smaller organisations it was quite common for there to be family members on a committee, and it used to ring warning bells. Even if it is all above board and hunky-dory, the presence of family members does raise questions with funders.

NS: There are certain safeguards and measures you can put in place if you are going to have family members on a board. The other trustees need to agree to the appointment and you would not put two family members on the same subcommittee, because they could dominate it. You should also set term limits, and you certainly don't want two family members to be signatories to a charity's cheques.

JK: Yes, that really would be worrying. Of course, sometimes it takes a while to realise that two trustees are related if they don't share a surname. A few years ago, when doing a governance review of a charity, I noticed one trustee was very dominant. I mentioned it to the chair and asked whether he could perhaps restrain her. He laughed and told me he hadn't been able to do that in several years of marriage to her.

NS: I should put in a good word for family foundations, which are often run jointly by the spouse and children of a person who has left a charitable endowment in their will. Of course, there are particular dynamics between the family members, but they are generally very aware of the need to provide a public benefit. When I was chief executive of the Association of Charitable Foundations I saw a great many examples of good practice by the trustees of family foundations.

JK: Yes, that can work well, but it is totally different because they are using the family's own money. When a charity is applying for grants and using other people's money, there needs to be a higher degree of external accountability.

Nigel Siederer NS: Of course, in smaller organisations the thing that really rings alarm bells is if the family members of trustees are employed by the charity.

JK: Yes, that does happen and it raises eyebrows, particularly if the trustee is discussing the performance and pay of the family member. The problem with having two related people as trustees is that governance should be about accountability, diversity and a balance of interests, and people who live together tend to have similar views and, consequently, can sometimes shut out other people. If that happens, you can end up with an outer ring of trustees who rarely turn up to meetings because they have lost interest.

NS: Yes, and that can be very damaging. I think the thing to bear in mind at all times is whether the choice of trustees is benefiting the charity. If personalities have started to come before the charity's work, things will need to change.

Julia Kaufmann is a trustee and former chair of Eaves Housing for Women, and a governance consultant. She was chief executive of the BBC Children in Need Appeal from 1987 to 2000

Nigel Siederer is a trustee of the McDougall Trust and of Fair Trials International. He is also a governance consultant and has been chief executive of the Association of Charitable Foundations

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