'Chairs are a catalyst either for good or ill'

Four years after the Association of Chairs was launched, executive director Ros Oakley believes the organisation has filled a long-standing niche in sector representation

Ros Oakley
Ros Oakley

The Association of Chairs was launched in 2013 at a time when it was not entirely clear whether a sector awash with representative bodies needed yet another.

Four years on, however, the case for the AoC has been well and truly made.

The association began with about 40 members, but this figure has now leapt to nearer 400, with 5,000 people signed up to receive its email newsletter. And after the high-profile collapse of Kids Company, which has been blamed partly on the board, the need for the AoC has arguably become even more evident.

In June this year, the AoC received a £463,000 grant from the Big Lottery Fund for a support and development programme for chairs and vice-chairs of charities with incomes of less than £1m. The grant will also enable the AoC to double its workforce to four permanent members of staff, with a new programme manager and a marketing and partnerships manager joining the team.

Executive director Ros Oakley says the challenge now is to expand the association's work and profile. "Our systems are geared to being small because we didn't have much resource," she says. "We still don't have a huge amount, so the key thing now is that the first steps have gone well, feedback is good and we want to scale up.

"We want this to be in terms of size and reach, but there are also more services we want to develop. Our approach has been to focus on a few things and do those well before we expand."

As well as adding new staff, Oakley wants to see the AoC deliver more online activities, such as webinars and a discussion forum, as well as move into its first permanent office space. Digital developments will be particularly valuable in helping the association expand its reach even further: although it holds 40 per cent of its events outside London, a small organisation like the AoC will always struggle to reach the whole country.

Much-needed support

Oakley believes the AoC has filled a long-overlooked niche in the sector and has been able to advocate the interests of chairs in major charity sector publications and through making submissions to bodies such as the Lords Select Committee on Charities.

"When you stop and think about it, it seems extraordinary that we had all these organisations and nothing for chairs," says Oakley. "Some people said they could not believe nobody had invented it before now. There's a real need for it.

"What goes on during a meeting is very much about the influence of the chair: they shape the culture, the effectiveness of the board and the agenda. Or at least they should do: if they're not, that's a problem. For us, chairs are a catalyst for good or ill - it is our role to make sure it is for good."

But should the association expand to cover all trustees, as some within the sector have suggested, given the lack of support for boards more generally? Oakley says she believes it already does, albeit indirectly through supporting chairs.

"Chairs are well placed to provide the right kind of leadership and model the behaviours and attributes that are needed," she says. "It's much harder for individual trustees to make that decisive difference. We're keen to equip chairs to support and develop their trustees."

The report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on the collapse of Kids Company held the charity's trustees - including its chair Alan Yentob - ultimately responsible for what happened. The organisation's demise has cast a long shadow over charity governance, and Oakley says she has heard that some people have been put off from becoming chairs because they fear what might happen if things going wrong under their watch.

But she adds that others have used the Kids Company example to highlight the importance of good chairmanship and to praise the work of the large number of good chairs and trustees. Now Oakley says she would like to see a greater focus placed on sharing best practice and reinforcing positive behaviour among chairs.

"There has been a lot of emphasis on creating written guidance - mostly on governance and trusteeship, and often in forbidding language, which can feel overwhelming," she says.

"There is very little focused on the chair and, in particular, actually understanding what works best to motivate chairs and encourage helpful behaviours and the things that really make a difference."

The AoC is increasingly concentrating on promoting good governance, rather than preventing bad governance, and on helping chairs to govern successfully.

One of the ways it has done this is to participate in the creation of the Charity Governance Code, which was published earlier this year. Oakley sat on the code's steering group and hopes it will prove a success in terms of promoting a "spirit of continual improvement".

"Truth be told, we haven't yet found the 'perfect' chair," she says. "We have found people who do different things very well, but it is a continual learning about how you can be a better chair and what your board most needs of you right now."

New models of governance

Oakley also wants to see the AoC help chairs to adapt to a changing environment of lower funding and new challenges for charities, such as Brexit and technological advances. This means chairs reforming models of governance to reflect the changing nature of their charities: for example, if a grant-funded charity begins generating more earned income, its governance model should adopt the different monitoring requirements and account for the risks the move will entail, she says.

Chairship must also reflect the 21st century in terms of diversity and lifestyles, Oakley says. The chairs of charities should come from different age groups, races, genders and socio-economic groups, while the role has to accommodate the modern hectic way of life, she argues. Oakley adds that she believes the AoC can play an important role in helping the sector to adapt.

"I think the whole question of how we do governance is one we should keep exploring," she says. "I don't think it should be stuck and static. There are opportunities to reimagine how we do governance. That includes digital meetings and how we divide up the work, so we don't just have a single heroic leader but look at how we distribute different tasks around the board. I think it is part of our role to be sharing innovation."

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