Elizabeth Balgobin: There is a good story among all the difficulties

This year's trustees report can still be positive despite having had to dip into a charity's reserves, says our columnist

Elizabeth Balgobin
Elizabeth Balgobin

The monitoring has been done, and I am now thinking about how we present the annual report and themes for the annual general meeting. The black and minority ethnic sector has been hit hard.

We have to adapt. Needs are more acute than ever and inequality is growing. Our strapline is "making civil society work for everyone", and that now feels more important than ever.

My struggle is managing this central message without it getting lost in the detail of what, when and how we did our work last year. What can we say we have achieved when those we seek to serve and support are losing their voices, funding and staff? How do we present the fact that, despite all we do, civil society is not working for many people and the situation appears to be getting worse?

We are not producing a glossy annual report this year and we will not be calling it an impact report. That leaves the accounts document, which - as well as the numbers - has to contain information on the what, when and how, such as whether trustees did their jobs properly and that the auditor has verified the document as a true record of our activities.

All important stuff - I do mean that most sincerely because I remember a time when reports did not really hold us to account; but it's hardly the most riveting read when what you want to show is not only that the work you do is important, but also that it is getting harder to perform.

Done well, the report set out in your accounts should enable you to reflect on what the journey has been and where there is room for improvement, and to publicly state your intentions for the future.

I know that many of us open these and head straight for the Sofa, that is the Statement of Financial Activities rather than the actual couch, too tired to read those long wordy pages, before flipping over to the balance sheet and then going back to read the story that goes with those numbers.

The trustees' report has to match those numbers and the numbers must reflect the what, when and how of the past year. Then there is all the governance stuff to look at, such as whether you assessed your skills and development needs and what you have done about the results.

The board survey, analysis and action plan will help fill in some of those words but it does not mean much if you did nothing about those actions. Have you assessed your risks? Well done, but what did you do to eliminate and mitigate them? You have reviewed your internal procedures and updated them, haven't you? Have you checked that you haven't breached new bribery laws? What was the cost of governance and were you providing good value for money?

The comparison with last year's costs will be interesting for those that pay their trustees - will the judgement on value for money be any different than for those of us who continue to provide this role on a voluntary basis?

The section most of us have spent this year looking at is the review of the financial position, reserves policy and future funding. I am going to find it difficult to write this section - we have been using the reserves in order to deliver the mission.

Future funding is still not known and I know that I won't be alone in struggling with the words for this section. In pictorial terms it would be best described by a sad face symbol.

Yet there is a positive story to be told. In spite of all of the difficulties, we have worked hard to spend the money on the mission, cutting costs where they could be cut without compromising quality of delivery.

There is also the aspect of finding new ways of doing the work and still maintaining a positive response from the members and saying no to funding opportunities that would cost more to deliver and would compromise our standards. All of this makes the board focus on the essentials and not get lost in the details.

We could just use smileys for the executive summary and accept that the rest will be the usual wordy stuff that we all write every year. I have to wonder whether I can get away with a chair's foreword made up entirely of smileys?

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

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