The announcement from the Charity Commission in rejecting the House of Lords Select Committee’s recommendation that there should be a time limit on the time someone could sit as a trustee was a victory for common sense. As the commission concluded, I think it is solely for individual charities to determine their own positions on this.
My view is that if Midland Mencap had such a restriction within its governance documents, the impact of the brutality of austerity and the way in which the trustees and senior leadership team navigated the organisation through this period might well have turned out differently and very much for the worse. This was not simply a case of better the devil you know in facing challenging and uncharted waters; this was about experienced trustees and skilled managers working consistently together at a time of acute crisis.
I firmly believe that board stability has been a critical factor in ensuring the robustness and agility of the organisation to sustain its strategic relevance, creativity and capability through the most uncertain of times. If the time limit rule had been in place when the first austerity measures were implemented late in 2008, I believe our board would have lost people whose commitment and explicit understanding of our organisation’s mission would have severely impaired our ability to continue to thrive.
It is damned hard to find outstanding trustees; it’s actually very hard to find good ones. So why would you set out deliberately to asset strip your organisation of skills, knowledge, experience, understanding and, importantly, the willingness to undertake the trustee role and risk destabilising the organisation for the sake of it? Nine years might sound like a long time to serve, but so long as the board remains progressive, regularly refreshes its strategic compass, has plans for succession and is exposed to the voice of its customers, the shelf life of a trustee should be self-determined.
Of course I understand the new blood and fresh eyes argument, and no one would want a board to drift towards complacency, inertia and staleness. However, an effective and proactive board, well led by the chair and working in harmony with its management team and its volunteers mitigates those risks. This approach delivered us something I believe to have been priceless throughout the austerity years. The stability of the board allowed us to remain risk-averse, an organisational key performance indicator that has been fundamental to our strategic decision-making throughout the most uncertain of times.
I believe it would have taken only modest personnel changes at board level to have undermined the deep understanding it had of the difference between chance and risk and for the charity to have suffered negatively as a consequence. A stable, self-determining board has been able to take the long view throughout austerity, ensuring a constant and experience-led approach to strategic and financial planning, resource allocation and support to the senior leadership team.
Although the commission has said it will reflect on this again when time allows, I hope the time-limit proposal has been kicked into the long grass permanently. The sector has enough to deal with.
Dave Rogers (@) is chief executive of Midland Mencap