Regulation with Rosie: handling busy trustees

The Charity Commission's Rosie Chapman on how to handle busy trustees.

Growth is good, but not when it takes your board away from the job in hand.

Smaller organisations inevitably have fewer hands on deck and their trustees often undertake both strategic and operational roles. Policy-making is in direct response to operational need, and board members know the issues like the backs of their hands.

Larger organisations are more likely to have high-powered trustees - busy people juggling a range of high-level professional commitments whose roles may become increasingly confined to reviewing recommendations provided by others.

I've heard from charities where the 'dipping in and out' behaviour of boards causes real headaches: the trustees often turn up to meetings without having done their mental homework. Insufficient sustained interest can mean their ability to give consistent advice is limited. This can be incredibly frustrating for staff working full-time. It can also become a model for poor decision-making and lack of action.

The first step to solving this is to recognise that you have a problem. Try taking balances of power out of the equation: it's hard for any employee to point out to the members of their board that they are missing the point. One of the solutions proposed by a charity I visited was to bring in a well-briefed facilitator to help with those board discussions that involve the agreement of important recommendations.

Given that this scenario is - unfortunately - not unique, try getting in touch with chief executives from other organisations for an informal chat about how they manage the situation at their charities.

Finally, send an executive summary and agenda to the board at least a week in advance of key meetings, even if you already did so weeks before. Ask board members if they'd like any extra information. Nothing focuses the mind quite as much as a deadline.

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