New guide for charity chairs adds the 'how' to the 'should'

A Chair's Compass, published by the Association of Chairs, offers hands-on advice and support for those taking on this 'difficult and demanding' role. Sam Burne James reports

The Association of Chairs provides advice for those in the hot seat
The Association of Chairs provides advice for those in the hot seat

Charity chief executives have Acevo, communications teams have CharityComms, and honorary treasurers the Honorary Treasurers Forum; but formal and specific support for the chairs of not-for-profit organisations has in the past been less available.

Now the Association of Chairs, a year after it registered as a charity with the Charity Commission in October 2013, has launched its guidebook A Chair's Compass, and is hoping to start filling the gap.

Ruth Lesirge, chair of the association, says charity law does not acknowledge the substantial extra duties that a chair has compared with other board members. "There is very little in law that distinguishes the role of the chair from that of the trustee," says Lesirge, a charities veteran with 35 years of public and third sector experience. "They are often regarded as first among equals, which they definitely are not."

Much governance literature either passes over the specifics of chairship or approaches it only from a more theoretical perspective, according to Lesirge. "There is general guidance available for chairs, but it's always about 'should', not about 'how'," she says. "Our ambition was to understand what it was that chairs needed to know, how they needed to be supported, what was problematic and what good practice advice there was out there for what is sometimes a very difficult and demanding role."

The guide is the culmination of months of research and consultation with chairs from across the not-for-profit sector. Lesirge says she hopes it will help to make up for the decline in hands-on support that the Charity Commission has been able to offer in recent years, as budgetary pressures force it to concentrate on its regulatory function.

"The commission has been extremely supportive and helpful throughout the process of establishing ourselves and the writing of this guide," she says. "I can't speak for it, but we certainly see our work as complementary to its activities."

William Shawcross, the chair of the commission, agrees. He says in a statement: "Chairing a charity can be a difficult job, but it is vital and rewarding. This new guide from the Association of Chairs is a welcome source of practical support and advice for those volunteering for this important role."

Lesirge is keen to point out that the guide's launch is not mission accomplished for the association. "This is neither the first nor the last word on chairs," she says. "We regard this as part of an ongoing dialogue in which the association will play a central part."

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