Board Talk: How to refresh trustees on a board that has gone stale

Graham Young and Kate Sayer discuss ways of rekindling energy and enthusiasm

Board talk
Board talk

GY: Why has it got stale in the first place? Often because not enough thought is put into supporting and managing the board well. There needs to be a limit on the period each trustee can serve. These should be staggered so that not everybody is leaving at the same time and there is a continual addition of new blood. There should also be a continual process of professional development.

KS: Yes, it is important to understand what we mean by 'stale'. Boards can often get bogged down in the business agenda and have long papers with too much operational detail. Most trustees join for the actual work of the charity, its beneficiaries and the feeling that they can make a difference. So you can enliven your board by reconnecting them to the work of the charity. Try having a board meeting in a different location - perhaps one of the charity's centres where services are delivered. And before the business part of the meeting, allow time for trustees to go round the building to meet staff and beneficiaries.

Graham Young, director, Graham Young ConsultingGY: Yes, I would agree, as long as the trustees remember that they are not managers and leave operational issues to the staff.

Sometimes individual board members are not doing their jobs very well any more. They might be busy with priorities elsewhere or have simply got bored. The work of the charity, or its size, might also have changed since they got involved and they might feel less equipped to contribute.

Regular evaluations of how the board is performing and how individuals are contributing should be carried out by the chair or an independent adviser. When it's time to bring in new members, a skills audit can be carried out to highlight what is needed.

This sort of approach to the role of the board can revitalise its members and encourage them to take their roles more seriously. It can also prompt some members to recognise that this is no longer for them (or offer an opportunity for the chair to suggest that).

Kate Sayer, partner, Sayer VincentKS: Yes, where there is an effective chair, then it is their job to maximise the contribution of all trustees. It is worth having a conversation with each trustee to ask them what they can bring to the charity and how the charity can support them to make that contribution. If the chair is not willing or able to have that sort of conversation, then you might need to start it at a board awayday. Asking the general question about the contribution that trustees should make in a workshop situation will still make some trustees think about their own contribution.

A good chair should raise the issue of when it is time for a trustee to leave - otherwise the chief executive might have to do it. This needs to be done gracefully, making absolutely sure that the trustee's past efforts are recognised and celebrated. Try to add a 'thank you' and presentation of a leaving gift at a charity event, even if only a board meeting. It might be appropriate to create a role for the leaving trustee so that they can remain involved in the charity and keep up friendships. You need to understand what is important to that trustee to manage this well.

GY: Offering face-saving ways out, particularly for those who have been involved for a long time, is good.

They could be a patron, adviser, president or trustee/chair emeritus with a place of honour on the letterhead or annual report. As charities, we are sometimes guilty of unceremoniously dumping people who have served selflessly for many years.

The situation with trustees who founded the charity can be particularly difficult. They might have made an amazing contribution, but 25 years on could be clogging up the works. Such 'founder syndrome' situations take delicate handling, but the most intractable cases can lead to boardroom showdowns and votes, which is uncomfortable but sometimes necessary. The charity is there to serve its beneficiaries, not to be a place of comfort for staff or trustees.

KS: It is difficult for other trustees to tackle founder trustees because they will often have a lot of personal power. They might also have deliberately recruited trustees to the board who they know will defer to them. Typically, a trustee will be asked to serve a term of three years with only one renewal. You can introduce this rule as part of a code of good practice.

Graham Young is a director of Graham Young Consulting and Kate Sayer is a partner at Sayer Vincent

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