Elizabeth Balgobin: Could I have done better in my time as a charity chair?

When you relinquish the chair, it's time to reflect, writes our columnist

Elizabeth Balgobin
Elizabeth Balgobin

As I write this, I am in the final stages of my stint as the independent chair of Voice4Change England. I hand over the reins to Neena Samota at the annual general meeting on 21 November - and I have been thinking about exactly what it is that I am handing over.

The role of an independent chair of a membership organisation is an odd one: you are not of the organisation and yet you become synonymous with it.

Sitting outside the membership issues, you are able to concentrate on the organisation and its strategic direction, ensuring that no one section of the membership takes the primary focus and that all operate as a whole. As trustees and directors, we are, of course, all equal, with the same duties and responsibilities towards the organisation. The expectation others have of the roles of chair and treasurer is much more, and we carry that expectation, along with the duties and responsibilities.

Hands-on approach

I have been more of a hands-on chair than I planned to be when I took on the role. After my interview and subsequent appointment, the board set some performance indicators for me, which I am pleased to say I have met. In this period of reflection, I wonder if that is enough, and I have been thinking about what I could have done better.

I have been asking around other chair/trustee circles, and even among trusted friends no one wants to say what has not worked and what they could do better. Ten or 15 years ago, I would have received frank replies to the question, but people have a more cautious approach to protecting their own reputations and those of their charities, these days.

But we learn from mistakes and others can benefit from what we learned from these experiences. We need to share these stories in a safe and confidential way, because talking them through helps us to find solutions rather better than going it alone and muddling through. I welcome the new Association of Chairs as a way to get to this safe place.

What could I have improved about my performance as chair? I could have said "no" more often, about a number of things. Not so much about decisions made, but about the approach taken to some of those decisions. A judicious "no" at the right time might have led to swifter and firmer decisions - not ones that were less valid or correct for the organisation, but decisions that might have been arrived at sooner and opened up new possibilities.

I could have prepared better. I read the papers and I talked to people when the opportunities arose. But I didn't take enough time to run through all the potential scenarios before going into board meetings.

I should have found more time to run through scenarios with the director before papers were sent to the other board members. I should have spent more one-to-one time with board members outside meetings. I could have used my casting vote more often; with hindsight, I can see when that would have helped, but at the time it was difficult to perceive that.

Time consuming

There is not much I can do about fixing the issue of how much time I had to devote to V4CE. I gave a lot of time, travelling the country, speaking at events and pressing the flesh.

Although this was needed, it was to the detriment of that scenario planning and spending more time with my fellow board members and the director.

V4CE is a small organisation, and the chance to use me as an additional external presence helped it in its day-to-day business. But I now think that it reduced my ability to give time to that all-important scenario planning that leads to good strategic leadership.

Next time, I will do better. I feel that my time at V4CE has given me new perspectives on my leadership and my ability to be a competent trustee.

As the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has said: "Competency is the most important attribute when striving for excellence."

So now I am off to find my next trustee role. Let me know whether you think anyone might want this slightly worn chair.

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

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in
RSS Feed

Third Sector Insight

Sponsored webcasts, surveys and expert reports from Third Sector partners

Third Sector Logo

Get our bulletins. Read more articles. Join a growing community of Third Sector professionals

Register now