Expert view: Do your trustees and staff get on?

Keeping trustees properly informed and allowing them to air their concerns is crucial.

It is always accepted and understood that the chief executive of any charity, however large and whatever its governance structure, must be empowered primarily by the board. At the same time, the clear distance between the strategic direction provided by trustees and the day-to-day management provided by the staff who carry out the board's directions must always be maintained, whatever the personal inclinations of everyone involved.

Current thinking on governance predicts that a failure in this respect can lead to considerable difficulties in taking the organisation forward, so it is important for a structure to be established as early as possible.

However, the roles of chair and chief executive can become blurred, especially in smaller charities. This is particularly true when the founder of the organisation is still around; it is a natural inclination for them to want to continue to be involved in the day-to-day operation of the organisation. Many chief executives also rightly see themselves as having a right to strong input into decisions on strategic direction.

Staff might feel that their organisation's board is inadequate and not really aware of the real issues - after all, trustees are only volunteers. And since all the papers necessary for the board should be channelled through the chief executive's office, it is more than possible that some information will be omitted from briefings.

It is imperative, therefore, that the chair ensures not only that all agenda papers are discussed and agreed before they are circulated, but also that continuous appraisal is put in place to avoid such situations. Good governance practice can also allow for mutual appraisal, not only between the chief executive and the chair but also between the chair and the board.

A meeting of trustees without any staff members present can ensure a frank exchange of ideas, with a clear understanding that this part of the meeting is being held in a non-judgemental atmosphere and without minutes. This will allow trustees to state their concerns about perceived failings and the air can be cleared. It may be advisable to have the chief executive present for some of the time, if only to remove any staff suspicion that a witch hunt is in progress.

Above all else, trustees and staff members have to understand why the roles they have accepted are laid down in the way they are, and how best the board can measure the outcomes of the strategies it deems to be for the benefit of the organisation.

- Judith Rich is the chair of Charity Appointments and the Diabetes Foundation, and a trustee of Relate and Reach.

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