We need to help trustees by building a governance model that is fit for modern challenges

Rather than scaring trustees into ticking regulatory boxes, we need an approach to governance that promotes leadership, writes Stella Smith

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

It's not a good time to be a trustee at a charity. Every bad news story about charity or charities seems to highlight yet another weakness in governance. Whether it is allegations of mismanagement, fundraising tactics or paying the chief executive too much - in fact, whatever the crisis is - it's always the trustees who take the flak; they are, after all, ultimately responsible for the conduct of the organisation. So isn't it time we got to grips with the challenges of the charity trustee role?

There are, of course, many training courses and conferences that can help trustees to develop the skills and knowledge they need. The Charity Commission regularly revises guidance for trustees, always emphasising the responsibilities that come with the role. And now we have a Fundraising Regulator that focuses on accountability in fundraising. But will this actually improve governance in the sector?

In reality, probably not. No matter how much a trustee might want to devote more time and headspace to their charity duties, the everyday practicalities make it a very difficult role. Increased regulation and the threat of public shame if the charity fails are unlikely to make trustees do a better job. Such pressures are more likely to prompt them to think about how they can cover their own backs if things go wrong, or to consider if and when they can step down from the role altogether. And as many chief executives know, unless you happen to be a big-name charity with a lot of prestige, recruiting trustees can be tough. The current climate will not make it any easier.

Perhaps our expectations of trustees are simply too high these days. When the current model of governance was developed, charities were smaller, generally funded by philanthropy and donations, and staffed largely by volunteers.

Some of today's charities, by contrast, are complex, multimillion-pound operations, many of them delivering significant government contracts, responsible for a range of services for vulnerable communities and managing thousands of staff and volunteers.

Our working lives used to be simpler too, but our day jobs no longer fit into a neat nine-to-five box. Can trustees really be expected to get to grips with the complexities of the modern charity in their spare time, squeezed between their busy day jobs and family commitments? There will always be some trustees who can speed-read the papers and instantly spot the key issues, but for many it is a tough job to stay ahead of the various challenges that charities face.

There is a place for training, guidance and regulation, but they will not fix the problem by themselves. If we are to re-engage supporters and rebuild public trust, we need to stop avoiding the issues, acknowledge that charitable organisations have changed and develop a governance model that addresses the challenges of the sector today.

Rather than scaring trustees into ticking regulatory boxes, we need an approach to governance that promotes leadership, quality debate and scrutiny at board level. Then maybe our trustees can move on from worrying about what the next scandal might be and we can all get back to focusing on what we really need to do.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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