Elizabeth Balgobin: Why being a charity chair can be a lonely experience

Our columnist questions whether there is the right support out there for voluntary sector chairs

Elizabeth Balgobin
Elizabeth Balgobin

Loneliness is an emotion we can all relate to, however complex or unique such feelings are to each of us. What do we mean by the phrase "lonely at the top"? A lot has been written about the loneliness of leadership, particularly with reference to chief executives, and even the loneliness of long-distance running gets a mention.

We don't seem to hear so much about loneliness among voluntary sector chairs. We have a strange role. Legally, we are equal to all other trustees but we are expected to provide leadership and direction to the board and senior staff, and enable the trustees to fulfil their overall responsibilities for the strategic direction and governance of the organisation.

We have to work with the senior staff to support and challenge them to achieve the best the organisation can deliver.

There is an expectation that the chair will have enough presence and charisma to front the public meetings and deal with any crisis that might arise. We are also expected to have the administrative skills to ensure that the board meetings cover everything they should, and that agendas make sense. We have to keep an overview of all the sub-committees, think about appraisal and development, be aware of and manage conflicts of interest and ensure people attend.

Productive discussion

On top of this, we must develop the active listening skills and people skills needed to ensure a productive discussion - and the discipline to end it and lead the meeting to a decision.

Where do chairs go to get support? On a lot of levels there is support available, but does it meet our needs? All loneliness is felt uniquely by one person and exploring what they feel can help them find adequate remedies.

Online information is fine for quite practical things and attending a training course can help you develop skills and improve your practice.

But if you feel that you have no one to talk to, where do you go? Some chairs call me informally just to have a quiet rant. It goes no further and, if it helps, then I am happy to do it - although I can't look after every chair in the land.

Recently, I attended a meeting hosted by the Charity Commission to explore whether an institute of chairs should and could be created - an organisation where all the information could be gathered and where chairs could meet. It is ambitious and I have expressed my concern that I would not want any new structure to be academic and elitist.

The vision includes a place to develop 'chairs in waiting'. The majority of we chairs run tiny organisations and struggle to find the time for that. Anything that would be a burden is not going to help. However, having a space to explore our needs safely, find ways of meeting them and alleviating some of the loneliness has its appeal.

How you become chair can also influence how you approach the role and the support you might feel you need.

I am an independent chair at Voice4Change England. The board is elected and based on the membership structure, but we advertise, interview and appoint the chair for two years.

In other membership organisations the board is elected and one of that number is chosen as chair for that year.

I know chairs who are in the role because they did not step back quickly enough; in other words, they were 'volunteered' because no one else wanted the job.

Challenges

Becoming a trustee means you might have to be chair at some point. If you choose the role, you might be better prepared for the challenges and potential loneliness; if you are coerced into it, it might be the loneliest experience of your life.

Finally, if you are a chair and want to let me know what you think, then get in touch. I am genuinely interested in whether you feel there is a need, and how existing or new structures could support you. In the meantime, I'll continue to take the odd ranty call from those people who are finding it tough at the top.

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

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