Joe Saxton: A lot of nonsense is talked about trusteeship - what really matters is what works

Anything that trustees do that produces a more effective charity must be welcome, argues Joe Saxton

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

The consultancy I work for teamed up with Third Sector and the Charity Futures programme on the largest-ever survey of UK trustees this autumn. Here are some of the things that came out of it for me.

More skills, more training: Trustees need more support in doing their jobs. There are so many ways in which trusteeship is shrouded in mystery and legalese that we need to give trustees all the help they can get. This support needs to come either online or at a local level, or both; but industrial-scale conferences in London are probably out of the reach of many trustees, in terms of both budget and geography.

Make trusteeship an individual role: We tend to make it a group role. What other role in a charity is defined by the frequency of meetings and the numbers around the table? Each trustee should really have a distinct role, whether because of a specialist skill (legal or financial, say) or in style (ambassador, critical friend and so on).

Stop making governance mysterious: A lot of nonsense is talked about trusteeship: "It's about strategy and not about operational stuff"; "It's about fiduciary duties" - and other big words. I feel trusteeship is best seen as another layer of management, with trustees getting involved if need be to make sure the organisation does a great job. As the most senior managers, trustees should be involved in the big picture much more than the details. They should use their limited time to best effect.

Keep the lawyers at an appropriate distance: I don't know when lawyers clothed trusteeship in legality, but it's not helpful. It makes trusteeship more intimidating and emphasises the legal aspect out of all proportion. I am a company director and have many legal responsibilities, but my real role is in organisational management and direction. Trusteeship is no different. Keep the legal stuff in proportion.

Make the code work harder: The Code of Good Governance has spluttered along since it was started a decade ago. It has no accreditation mechanism and no staff to drive it forward or increase its usage. It's good to see somebody of Rosie Chapman's expertise now behind its revision and the current consultation process. But to be truly successful, it will need proper resources behind it.

Create an umbrella body: There is an ongoing debate about whether we need a dedicated body for all things concerning charity trustees. I would say yes. The current model of spreading responsibility among a number of organisations has had several decades to deliver the goods and has failed. Department stores are on the decline in favour of specialist shops - the same model has proved its worth in the charity sector.

Slay the shibboleths, promote the functional: The charity sector loves its shibboleths - those things that are deemed sacred to the way that things are done. Trusteeship is rich with them: trustees should be unpaid, they don't manage but govern and so on. To quote my favourite Chinese proverb: "It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mouse." We should adopt the same mantra for trusteeship: what matters in trusteeship is what works. Anything that trustees do that produces a more effective charity must be welcome.

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy

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