Editorial: Professionalisation brings its own pitfalls

The relationship between charity chief executives and chairs of trustees is not always harmonious, and some chief executives feel they spend more time and energy managing their boards than managing the organisation, writes Third Sector editor, Stephen Cook.

There is some evidence that, while the day-to-day running of charities has become generally more professional, trustee boards have lagged behind.

Recruitment remains largely inward-looking, diversity is limited and appraisal and review are the exception rather than the rule. Third Sector's trustee survey last summer also suggested there is some complacency: 75 per cent of trustees felt they were sufficiently diverse and already had the right range of skills.

The chief executives body Acevo has chosen strong language to launch its new inquiry into governance. It has borrowed John Reid's now notorious phrase "fit for purpose" and says there is "shameful apathy" about the way some boards reject the need for more professionalism and feel that no change is necessary.

The inquiry comes hot on the heels of Acevo's call for charities to be allowed to pay their trustees if they wish, and it is all of a piece with that organisation's mission of increasing the proportion of public services delivered by the voluntary sector. No government is going to entrust contracts involving large sums of public money to organisations with slack governance procedures, so it is no surprise that Acevo wants to speed up the professionalisation of the way boards conduct themselves. When it talks about being "fit for purpose", one of the purposes involved is that of governments.

The sector also has to ask what we might end up with if we go too far down the road of pay and professionalisation. It's not impossible to foresee boards of trustees that look very much like boards of directors, appraised and reviewed (if not diversified) to the hilt, and a breed of expert professional trustees who make their living by sitting on a number of boards and getting paid for it.

It might make for more efficiency, greater competitiveness with other sectors and a growing slice of the contracts cake. But it would also erode the 'voluntary' aspect of the sector and widen the gap between the larger charities and the small ones that make up the majority and do not have the administrative resources to become more professionalised in the way Acevo envisages. We need a careful balance between increasing professionalism and the continuing drive to attract a wider range of trustees from all sections of society.

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