Stella Smith: Don't grumble about trustees - work out how best to support them

Board effectiveness does not just depend on trustees but on the relationship with and support of the staff team, writes the columnist

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

After having endured the public humiliation of their charity's collapse, Kids Company trustees are now the subject of rumours that they could be barred from holding company directorships. It's another tough reminder of how much responsibility is vested in the trustee role and of the potential consequences if things go wrong. It's no wonder then that, apart from the big-brand names, many charities are struggling to find people to sit on their boards. What is more surprising, though, is that staff and volunteers don't feel obliged to do more to support their boards.

In fact, it seems many of us are not averse to highlighting our board's weaknesses. Staff grumble that trustees are too hands-off or too meddling, that they come up with off-the-wall ideas or none, and that they take up valuable staff time or show no interest in the work. It is perhaps a trademark of the sector that we are more comfortable finding fault with leaders than reflecting on our own reluctance to follow, but all the same we should surely focus more on how we enable our trustees to govern well.

Charities need high-performing boards that oversee the strategy, ensure legal and regulatory obligations are complied with and that money is accounted for. Trustees need to offer different perspectives, challenge and ask difficult questions. However, board effectiveness does not depend on the trustees alone but also on the relationship with and support of the staff team. So if you are looking for ways to help your trustee board perform, here are some ideas to get you started.

Be honest about the commitment When we are desperate to recruit trustees it can be convenient to underplay this, but if we do it inevitably comes back to haunt us. Have a clear role description for trustees that sets out duties and expectations, and include the need to keep updated on trustee good practice. Once they're on board, provide a comprehensive induction and suggest they buddy up with more established trustees to help them get abreast of the issues.

Put them in touch with sector bodies There is a range of sector guidance and skills development opportunities that trustees from outside the sector might be unaware of. Link them in with these initiatives to strengthen their understanding of established good practice and how trustees from other charities approach their roles.

Provide relevant, up-to-date and accurate information When we get trustee air time it's tempting to wax lyrical about our accomplishments and the potential for our latest pet projects. Trustee meetings are invariably pushed for time. Distribute board papers in good time and focus less on what you want to tell them and more on what you would want to know if you were in their shoes.

Encourage and welcome feedback Build the relationship so that trustees can confidently interrogate the information. Take robust questioning in good grace: challenging is part of the job of good trustee governance.

Most importantly, remember that complaining to colleagues about the board will not improve performance, even though it might make us temporarily feel better. Our energies would be better spent considering how we can support our trustees to bring their best to this critical role.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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