Caron Bradshaw: What my twins taught me about risk management

When a charity runs into difficulty, its trustees must decide whether to roll up their sleeves and get involved or to hold back and trust the experts, writes our columnist

Caron Bradshaw
Caron Bradshaw

We are often told that management means "doing" and governance means "seeing that it is done well". Of course, the line between the two changes, depending on the size and type of the charity, the mix of skills and the nature of the work. I have held many trusteeships: some at organisations in which the board of trustees was, in effect, the executive; others where a highly skilled and trustworthy executive could be relied upon.

Being a trustee is not easy. You are responsible for considering risk, or the uncertainty surrounding events and their outcomes, and planning for management of them - yet you are often not working on the ground and do not have the detailed understanding that goes with being part of the executive team. When charities run into difficulties, breakdowns in governance and a failure to manage risks appropriately are commonly cited as causes. So how do you, as a trustee, decide what situation requires you to step in and intervene?

Information junkie

Let me tell you a personal story. My husband and I had decided that our family was complete when, unexpectedly, we discovered that I was expecting twins. As an information junkie, I made it my business to understand all the risks. We decided to employ two expert independent midwives, because the experience of NHS midwives in natural twin births was rather patchy.

Without going into too much detail, we concluded that, after 12 weeks, we didn't want the regular scans being offered for our high-risk pregnancy unless they were recommended by our experts. We were content to rely on the experience of our midwives and I didn't want to be trotting off to hospital every five minutes.

The NHS obstetrician was really nervous.

I had every sympathy for him; he had a limited personal experience of multiple pregnancies and I was pushing him way out of his comfort zone. However, other than that it was a breach of the usual protocol, he couldn't offer any good reasons why our decision should be overturned.

Together with our independent midwives, we'd ruled out the major risks in my pregnancy. There were no other indicators to support the doctor's fears that I was high-risk. He was forced to accept that our midwives could use traditional methods of assessing the progress of the pregnancy. The absence of his usual detailed measurements, taken at regular intervals through a scanning, left him questioning his role.

Trusting the experts

I asked whether the obstetrician trusted our experts. He did. I asked if he could make my babies grow if he was more hands-on. He agreed that he could not. So, aided by a more experienced obstetrician, he agreed that we'd be trusted to call in help if we needed it - but otherwise I'd be supported to get on with being pregnant.

I carried to 41 weeks and gave birth, at home, with no complications, to two healthy girls.

So what has all of this got to do with charity governance and risk management? If you, as a trustee, want to roll up your sleeves and step in, you should ask yourself whether it is because you're out of your comfort zone, rather than because the situation is actually more high-risk.

Do you have access to specialist knowledge and a skilled team, and are you being given regular information to assess progress? And finally, can you make the babies grow? Can you really change the outcome by getting more involved? If not, then best practice and governance would be to hold back.

Caron Bradshaw is chief executive of the Charity Finance Group

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