Board Talk: Is it better to appoint a chair from outside your charity?

Linda Laurance and Julia Kaufmann weigh up internal or external appointments

Board Talk
Board Talk

JK: If I had to bet, I would always put my money on the external appointee, especially in these uncertain times when charities have to adapt and change in order to survive.

LL: There will be times when this is the right road to take, but there is also much to be said for an internal appointment where there is an understanding not only of the aims of the charity but also of the ethos of the sector in which it operates. I have known incoming chairs who, having been brought in to encourage a mindset for change, have alienated everyone around them.

JK: Yes, but I was taking it as given that any new chair, however they might be appointed, would have the basic requirements for the role, including the ability to think strategically and good interpersonal skills. It doesn't take long to grasp the aims of an organisation or, if the appointee is from a different sector, the ethos of the voluntary sector. External appointees can bring a fresh perspective and a new energy - this is not as easy for someone who has been soaking up the status quo.

Linda LauranceLL: External appointees can bring new energy, but I do not rule out the possibility that someone who has been in an organisation for a while can do likewise. They might have been waiting for an opportunity to be creative and inspirational. In any case, some organisations will need a safe pair of hands to hold the trustees steady at a time of uncertainty, rather than a new broom keen to sweep away the old and bring in the new.

Julia KaufmannJK: I think you mean a familiar pair of hands, which is not necessarily the same as "safe". I also have to wonder what opportunity a chair has to be "creative and inspirational"? The real power in an organisation is the chief executive: the best the board - and the chair - can do is to exercise vigilance and systematically monitor the performance of the organisation against its budgets and plans. This should include setting objectives for the chief executive and monitoring his or her performance. This is much easier if a chair hasn't been part of a trustee board that has fudged the issue - and many do just that.

LL: When the relationship between chair and chief executive is a mutually respectful one, the chair can offer insights and ideas that support and enhance the chief executive's role. Fudging issues can happen with an external chair. It comes down to the best person being appointed to the role, having leadership, strategic, negotiation, communication and interpersonal skills, able to supervise the chief executive appropriately, and always keeping the board's responsibilities in mind. Small organisations might not have a paid officer, which is another matter altogether.

JK: I agree that it comes down to the best person being appointed to the role, and the larger and wealthier organisations often devote a lot of time and resources to this, even to the extent of using recruitment agencies. But smaller charities all too often rely on word of mouth and recruit someone known to the chief executive or the outgoing chair, and some are grateful for anyone they can get.

Under such circumstances, there may be little choice, and the chances of appointing someone who can offer insights and ideas that the chief executive is prepared to go along with might be a dream too far. It might sound cynical, but I'm just being realistic: new blood is likely to assess the situation more clearly.

LL: What often gets overlooked by trustee boards, whatever the size of the organisation, is that the appointment of the chair is a collective responsibility of the whole board. Sometimes the outgoing chair seeks to influence the board's decision to ensure that their own way of doing things continues. Bringing in an external chair will not necessarily prevent this. It is essential that the recruitment process is transparent and that the nominations committee includes people capable of focusing on what is best for the organisation. The process should begin, ideally well in advance, with a discussion about the type of person and level of experience needed in the future and what support the incoming chair is likely to need. Whether that person proves to be an internal or an external appointment might well be a matter of willingness to take on the role, or of availability at that particular time.

Linda Laurance is a governance consultant and deputy chair of Community Network, and Julia Kaufmann is a governance consultant and former chair of Eaves Housing for Women

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