Elizabeth Balgobin: Awaydays give boards and staff a chance to reconnect

It's rare for a charity's employees and trustees to have the time together to find out about each other, says our columnist

Elizabeth Balgobin

What motivates you to be a charity trustee? That was the question the staff at the spinal cord injury charity the Back Up Trust put to the board at a recent awayday for all of the staff and the trustees.

I found it interesting that the board asked the staff the same question: what makes them get up and come to work every day? The answers from both sides got me thinking about what makes this sector special.

For some trustees and staff, the answer was simple: the cause is theirs. They have spinal cord injuries and know that the charity's services will enhance lives.

For others, the answer was that they "caught the bug" - it is addictive to be involved with the charity. For one person, this meant that what started as a corporate duty has continued for many years because he just gets so much from his role as a trustee and wants to see the charity achieve all it can. Another person had volunteered for more than a decade until a job came up that allowed her to be paid for doing something she loved.

Better decisions

It's rare to have the time together to find out about each other. Back Up is still small enough to be able to get everyone together to do this once a year. It is invaluable.

I believe it leads to better decisions about the future of the organisation, because it helps trustees to understand the day-to-day pressure that their target-setting puts on the staff, and the staff to understand the longer-term vision the trustees are working towards. It also provides a moment to reflect on why we give up our time, skills and knowledge and to get enthusiastic about it all again.

Many of us, both trustees and staff, lose that enthusiasm over time. This is when it is vital for us to reflect on what we do and to reaffirm our commitment to that cause - or to accept that we do not aid the cause any longer. Boredom and non-participation are far more likely to kill off your charity than lack of funds.

Here is my challenge to you: think about what your organisation does. Do you know whom you serve? Do you know what their needs are? Are you best placed to meet those needs? Is this what you were set up to do? Do you have the skills, knowledge, resources and capacity to deliver?

Reflect on your role

Now think about why you are there. Did you join the board or staff team to help advance your career? Did you do it because you admire the organisation and feel that you have something positive to offer? Did you join because someone asked and you could not say no? What is it that keeps you in your role? What have you personally achieved, given and gained from the role?

Be honest and, if possible, share this with your colleagues. In larger organisations, this could be an anonymous survey. It could be an exercise in a team meeting. Or it could be part of that precious moment of the whole organisation being together.

And finally, for the record, I always leave an organisation when I know I am getting bored, no longer have the same bright enthusiasm or no longer have the right skills or knowledge to make a positive contribution.

The people and causes we serve deserve nothing less than the best and I only ever want to give my best. Sometimes it is a work in progress, but never kid yourself: other people always know when you are giving less than your best.

Elizabeth Balgobin is chair of Voice4Change England and a charity governance consultant

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