Sam Burne James: Talking points from the Trustee Conference

Telephone troubles, lean governance and the ideal size of a board were all on the agenda at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' recent conference, writes Third Sector's reporter

Sam Burne James
Sam Burne James

With a keynote that was well argued and well received, with attendees nodding their approval, Philip Kirkpatrick was perhaps the highlight of Monday’s Trustee Conference, organised by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and supported by Kirkpatrick’s firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, which marked the start of Trustees’ Week.

Here’s a buffet of the other things that piqued my appetite in between Kirkpatrick, and the short and light speech from the charities minister Rob Wilson that rounded off the day. Bon appétit!

Hello, is it the regulator you’re looking for?

In a workshop featuring not one but two Charity Commission staff, the biggest gripe from the trustees in attendance was that it was nigh on impossible to get a member of the commission's staff on the phone. Even before the commission’s recent move to a new website, trustees were expressing displeasure at the fact that no matter how many times they are told that the guidance or information they need is online, sometimes you just want to be reassured by a two-minute phone call to confirm that you’re heading in the right direction. Attendees might have enjoyed empathising with each other on the matter, but the budgetary reality is that calls for more telephone services will almost certainly go unanswered.

Trustees’ to-do list: Get lean, grow

Aside from the keynote sessions, the two best-attended workshops were the morning's Governance for Growth and the afternoon’s Charity Effectiveness/Lean Charities. Nigel Kippax, head of consulting at the NCVO, chaired both and told the delegates at the latter that they were pioneers. "A year or so ago very few people were thinking about process management in charities," he said. "Twelve or 18 months ago I doubt whether we’d have got more than a handful of people."

Shawcross not so sure on Paula priorities?

I've heard William Shawcross, the chair of the commission who was the day's first speaker, give umpteen addresses since I've been in this job. His messages, and ever-cheery oratorical style, were much the same as ever - the commission is getting tougher, trustees are marvellous, abuse is rare but serious - but one thing did stick in the mind.  He was asked by Martyn Lewis, chair of the NCVO, what new commission chief executive Paula Sussex meant by talking about risk-based regulation. "It’s a difficult phrase, and I’ll admit that," began Shawcross’s response, although he went on to give a good enough explanation. Is it? The commission have talked so much about it in recent months, surely he should have got the hang of it now. Time for a rebrand, perhaps? I'll offer 'chance-enabled monitoring' for a small fee.

Shawcross was unable to stay for the following speech, Kirkpatrick's keynote 'Is regulation out of hand?' - although Lewis said he'd make sure to provide a synopsis. Shawcross still had time to give a pre-emptive response of "no, no, no!" as he left the building.

Ideal board size? Five to eight, end of

In the afternoon panel session on Inspirational Governance, the three-person panel was asked what was the ideal size for a charity’s trustee board. "I think the ideal is five to eight – no argument, no debate," answered Sir Peter Bazalgette, chair of a 14-person board at the Arts Council England. The problem, he admitted, was whether you can actually cut boards down to that size. The NCVO also has a board of 14, which used to be over 40, its chair Lewis pointed out.

Alice Maynard, governance consultant and former chair of Scope, whose board is 12-strong, said that anything above 15 started to get problematic – so at least Bazalgette’s board isn’t totally unworkable by her measure.

Finally, Chloe Donovan, a 19-year-old trustee of the youth charity Step Up to Serve, who was there to encourage charities to appoint more young trustees, reminded the audience that even if there was not a young person on their boards, they could still involve them in their governance as an adviser or similar.

Conflicts of interest: of commission interest

There is a growing recognition that encouraging trustees to recognise and deal with conflicts of interest is a big priority for the Charity Commission. Our legal update columnist has written about this, it’s been mentioned in a number of announcements of statutory inquiries by the commission and it can certainly be classified as a hardy perennial among governance issues. Expect to hear the commission repeat these messages at future events.

Suppliers in plentiful supply

I’m in fairly frequent contact with a number of accountants, law firms, fund managers and other providers of professional services to charity – but I’m regularly surprised at these sorts of events to discover among the exhibitors hitherto unknown private sectors firms that see business opportunities in providing an ever-broader range of services to the charity sector. I suppose this perceived opportunity could be read either as a sign of the voluntary sector’s health and ambition, of its skills and talent deficiencies, or it might just mean I’m easily surprised.

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