Elizabeth Balgobin: Don't ignore the symptoms of a trustee board gone bad

Some trustees forget what is expected of them, says our new columnist

Elizabeth Balgobin
Elizabeth Balgobin

Over the years, I have watched a number of trustee boards implode - and a few explode. I might even have been on a couple of them. More often, I am called in when the board has lost the ability to find its own solutions.

As trustee boards grapple with the difficult economic climate, some find that rising to the challenge is a natural response. But for others it brings out behaviour that makes the situation more difficult.

The symptoms of a good board gone bad cannot be ignored. These boards are made up of many professionals, from the sector and beyond, and a good number of those people have boards of their own to report to. And yet what we expect of the boards we report to is forgotten or ignored when we put on our board hats.

Ultimate responsibility

The board role is a tricky one. You hold ultimate, but collective, responsibility for the strategy, activities and future of your organisation. If you have staff, you delegate the activities to them but you retain the responsibility. This division of roles can be difficult to grasp, both for board members and paid senior staff.

It is a position with big and far-reaching responsibilities, but often it is our hobby and not our real life. We take it seriously but we want to enjoy it. No one starts a charity, community group or social enterprise because they are desperate to discuss the risk associated with working in partnership with another organisation.

Nor do any of us join the boards of these organisations because their policies and procedures manuals look good. These details are important - all the guides tell us so. But we all get lost in these details and stop enjoying our hobby.

Boards have so much to do, and the economic climate can add the challenge of making people redundant, cutting services, merging or changing. As individuals, we might well be facing these, and other, challenges personally and it can be difficult to give the time and energy to our board responsibilities. But it is our time, skills, knowledge and energy that are required of us.

Proactive and healthy?

When I get the call to provide some governance training, I have to quickly assess whether this is a proactive, healthy board investing in their development or whether it is one of those about to implode.

I have a sort of Myers-Briggs test I run through to determine the type of board it is. Is it the complacent board, the controlling board, the conflict board, the chief executive's board, the absent board, the haven't-a-clue board or the bored board? There are other types, and I am sure you have come across them.

There is so much literature out there on good governance, but my view is that most solutions are based on doing the obvious, common-sense thing: manage expectations; be honest; communicate; build trust; have procedures; set an agenda you can get through in the time you have for the meeting; remind yourselves why the board exists; and change or dissolve if you aren't meeting the need you exist to address.

Do you all view the aims and objectives of the organisation in the same way? Have you spent some time together looking at the long-term future and direction of the organisation or are you mired in the details?

If it helps you to have a graph then go ahead and create a graph, but just remember that the graph is no substitute for talking to each other.

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

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