Focus: Finance and Governance - Trustee talk - Sir George Cox, Chair of Merlin

When I took over as chair of overseas medical charity Merlin in 2001, I must admit I was not fully prepared for the role - even though I have served on boards of all shapes and sizes.

It is not that my business skills were inappropriate. They are very relevant, but they have to be applied in a different environment and a different way.

One challenge is the demand for better governance. We should expect our trustees to understand fully their obligations. There are strong parallels with the current expectations of non-executive directors on company boards.

They need to understand their role vis-a-vis the executives, recognising that although trustees have ultimate responsibility for how the organisation is managed, they are not there to manage it.

At Merlin, we have made great strides in governance. I think it now works well - the trustees fully understand their responsibilities and are highly supportive of the management.

Merlin is a fast-developing organisation, something of which I have had plenty of experience. The art of managing such organisations is to add new people without changing the culture and to add further disciplines without becoming bureaucratic. I was lucky in finding Merlin to be highly professional already. But what impressed me most was when I met staff in the field - running a medical centre in the Democratic Republic of Congo required a level of resourcefulness I have seldom encountered.

In the past four years, Merlin has quadrupled in size and now provides healthcare and medical relief for millions of people in 15 countries, including some of the most inhospitable areas of the planet. I can't think of any of my other roles - in business, government or academia - that has given me such satisfaction.

- Sir George Cox is the former director-general of the Institute of Directors and is also chair of the Design Council.

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