Board Talk: How to balance skills with a knowledge of the cause

Vicky McDermott of Scope and Mark Haggan of Read International discuss how trustees can add value to their roles

McDermott says trustees should ask themselves whether they are still relevant to their organisation
McDermott says trustees should ask themselves whether they are still relevant to their organisation

VM: The board of Scope has a combination of people with a real understanding of disability and others with strong professional skills. However, what binds us together is a focus on the shared goal of the organisation to make the country a better place for disabled people.

MH: At Read International, we are making some changes, which are reflected in the make-up of the board. Everyone needs to have that common goal and be clear that they are contributing to it. Experience of working in our target market is important, as is experience of some of the roles that are sought after in most boards, such as fundraising, legal and financial roles. We keep a series of job descriptions for trustees and a list of the skills we are looking for, which help trustees identify the specific contribution they can make. Some skills are always required; others are needed only for particular projects or limited periods of time.

VM: We carry out a regular skills audit of the board. We use the audit to identify two things: the specific skills and experience of people we will target in future recruitment drives, and where to focus the development of the board. We have started to run sessions to help trustees better understand the challenges faced by disabled people and their families. A number of our trustees have their own personal experience of social care, and we used part of our last meeting to hear about people's experiences, which enabled the trustees to share their understanding of the issues.

MH: We maximise the value that our trustees can add partly by reviewing skills regularly and partly by ensuring that there are the right number of opportunities to get input from the board - although I should say that this is not about creating opportunities simply for the sake of getting people involved. It is also down to people to be aware of the value that they are adding. I have sorted books in a storage unit, given presentations to students in the UK and worked with library committees in Tanzania - so I have seen the end result of what we do. But of course, we have only a certain amount of time to add value, which leads to a debate that I have encountered in various organisations: how to ensure continuity and a healthy turnover. What is the right length of time for a trustee to serve on a board?

VM: You're right, there is a real balance to be sought. Our trustees are elected for three-year terms and can serve up to two. This feels about right for us because I think there is a learning curve for trustees to get up to speed. We have had a high turnover over the past couple of years because of a governance review some years ago. We have managed this turnover well by developing a strong induction process to help people get up to speed. Like you, I think it is really important to understand the work that is being done on the front line, and I have gained a much better understanding of what Scope does through visits to our services and by talking to the people who try to ensure the strategy makes a difference. The executive team has a real part to play in providing some of the stability during times of trustee turnover.

MH: I remember a previous trustee position that I held for seven years, where I was the longest-serving member of the board. My colleagues took too much heed of my opinion because of the time I had spent as part of the team. Because of this, I knew it was time to move on. We need to ask ourselves those difficult questions regularly about whether we are still adding value and whether it is the right time to leave. It is often hard when you are still passionate about the aims and objectives of the organisation, but it is still sometimes the right thing to do.

VM: I agree. As trustees, we should always challenge ourselves to make sure we are still adding value and are relevant to the organisation. The challenges of keeping that balance of skills on the board is very similar across many organisations, and I think this is an area where we have an opportunity to collaborate across the sector.

Vicky McDermott is the vice-chair of the disability charity Scope and is chair of its resources committee

Mark Haggan is vice-chair of Read International, a charity that works to improve access to education in Tanzania

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