How to include members' views on the board of trustees and avoid the Gresley Society effect

The key is consultation, writes Rebecca Cooney

The statue of Sir Nigel Gresley
The statue of Sir Nigel Gresley

The question of whether a statue commemorating Sir Nigel Gresley should include a duck has divided the Gresley Society, which commemorates the railway engineer, into anti-duck (mostly trustees) and pro-duck (mostly members) factions.

It is a striking, if slightly comical, illustration of what happens when relations between members and trustees break down. So how can membership charities ensure members' views are represented?

One obvious solution is to appoint members' representatives as trustees. But Jonathan Burchfield, a partner at Stone King, says this is not feasible. "Once you're on a charity board, you are there only to represent what you believe to be right for the charity - not to represent members or a part of the membership," he says.

Ultimately, responsibility for the charity's welfare rests with trustees, giving them the final say in any decision, Burchfield says, but members can vote out trustees they disagree with at the annual general meeting. To avoid getting to this stage, he says, communication is key.

"There are two mantras - first, 'consult, consult and consult again'," he says. "Second, 'no surprises'. It's difficult to know with a large membership if those who vociferously oppose a particular decision are a minority, compared with a silent, contented majority. Consultation is a two-way process - it's about educating members, helping them to understand why the trustees want to make a particular choice, as well as hearing their views."

John Williams, vice-chair of the Association of Chairs, says that when it comes to listening to members' voices, trustees should be prepared to take their time. "There's often a peak of emotion when an issue first arises, but if you wait until the temperature goes down you get a more measured sense of where both sides stand," Williams says. "If you're aware of potential problems, you could, for example, create a working party of members and trustees to examine them."

An extension of this idea would be to change the charity's structure to include a membership advisory council, sitting just below the board, to develop a strong relationship with trustees while raising members' concerns. Burchfield says such a set-up can benefit the trustees.

"The members elect people to an advisory council, which in turn elects trustees, so the board is sheltered from the whims of members or groups with particular agendas," he says.

Members might worry that this move will leave them disenfranchised, Burchfield says, so communication is imperative. "If something is put to members sensitively, with proper consultation and explanations about why trustees believe the change is sensible, we've found the majority of members accept it," he says.

With care and communication, then boards and members should be able to interact without ruffling any feathers.

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