Expert view: Why did you become a charity chair?

Chairs of boards need to have a clearer idea about why they are doing what they are doing.

Why chair an organisation? What are you there for? To help the funders feel safe, or to serve the organisation, which - for personal or professional reasons - you might feel passionately committed to? Perhaps you do it for the chief executive, or simply to give something back. Maybe you want a bigger train set than the one you have in your day job, or you are attracted by the prospect of a knighthood. Is there a tradition in your family of running things?

There are so many expectations of you, and yet what responsibility do you really have? In most cases, unlike the members of the senior team, your income doesn't depend upon your involvement. Does your chief executive have more experience and motivation than you do? Are you aware of the way he or she gives power to you, fears you, puts faith in you or angrily hides behind you when things don't go as planned? How well do the two of you communicate with each other about your motivations and visions for the organisation?

Americans still use the 'give, get, git' mantra for the chair. You should give time, energy, support, ideas, strategic direction and, yes, money. Get through your networks of influence what the organisation can't otherwise have. And if you can't do that, git - walk the governance plank.

That type of competitive culture doesn't wash over here. Yet it seems that many chairs don't really know why they are doing what they are doing. I work with chief executives whose chairs include those living out the public school bully role. There's the founder who, after 40 years, still won't let go, despite the fact that the size, scope and reach of the organisation are way beyond her skills. Then there's the 'professional' chair, who simply adds organisations to his ever burgeoning political portfolio. And there are organisations with two chairs who each send eight-page emails to the charities' senior teams.

There are still huge issues of governance in the UK. The transformation from boards simply comprising the great and the good to professional and dedicated groups remains a work in progress. There are important questions to be asked about whether we need boards at all. If we can now have chief executives on boards, why can't executive teams run organisations?

Many organisations spend hours debating the kind of chairs they want and the sort of people it would flatter them to have, rather than adopting a realistic and professional approach.

So why are you a chair? Discuss it with your chief executive and, if you haven't already done so, use Acevo's excellent guidelines to help you both be clearer.

- Duncan Fraser is managing director of the Way Ahead Group, a leadership training organisation. 

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