Expert view: Law and Governance - A chair from beyond the sector walls

Charities should proceed with care when recruiting a chair with no sector experience.

There is a long tradition of FTSE 100 companies appointing chairs with no previous business experience. Charities are now getting in on the act as well, seeing chairs with no sector experience as a way to free their organisations from tradition and bring in fresh ideas.

I have no antipathy for such appointments and welcome people with exceptional talent who wish to move into charity chairmanship. But it is fair to say that such an appointment will mean a great deal of hard work on the part of both the organisation and the new chair. First, before the recruitment process even begins, the chair's responsibilities must be clearly delineated and the trustee role, with its traditional legal and ethical responsibilities, explained.

A clear statement of the reasons why the board wants to appoint someone from outside its own ranks should be available and endorsed by all trustees, because this will certainly be raised by the candidates. There will also be an additional burden on the chief executive, who will have a vital relationship with the chair and should be involved from start to finish in the recruitment process.

If the charity is not large, and especially if it does not have in-house HR professionals, it is probably better to use an outside agency for the recruitment. There are a number that specialise in board appointments and have the necessary expertise to identify good candidates. It is essential that the role is advertised. This will reassure supporters of the charity that every effort is being made to ensure the best candidate is found. If appropriate, a suitable message from the current chair could be put on the charity's website.

The interviewing panel is crucial. It must include at least two of the current trustees and the outgoing chair, and it is often advisable to have an outsider who can apply independent judgement as an extra member.

The hard work really begins when the candidate is appointed. It is essential that thorough briefings are carried out at all levels as soon as possible.

Thought should also be given to providing a mentor. Ideally this should be someone well known in the sector who can introduce the chair to appropriate bodies and major players, ensuring that they have ample opportunity to absorb the atmosphere of the strange new world in which they find themselves.

A successful appointment will inevitably mean the dynamics of the board will be different in future. But if it is led strongly and with wisdom, it should fulfil all the targets it set itself when it decided to make the appointment. And just think of all those new commercial contacts ...

 - Judith Rich is the chair of Charity Appointments and a trustee of Relate and Reach

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