Isolation at the top: How chairs pulled out all the stops during the pandemic

A new report from the Association of Chairs found chairs are putting in longer hours to help their charities manage the Covid-19 crisis, and are more connected than ever – but they desperately need support

The existential crisis posed by the coronavirus pandemic has been felt by everyone working in the sector – and it’s not just those who are paid to work for charities that are feeling the strain.

A recent survey by the Association of Chairs found that 62 per cent of chairs reported that they were spending four or more days a month on their chairing role during the crisis, up from 43 per cent before. And 18 per cent said they had spent more than 11 days a month chairing, versus 10 per cent before the pandemic.

The survey of 710 chairs, which was conducted online in November with support from the investment management firm CCLA for the report Chairing Through Covid: Above and Beyond, found that the most common reason for the increase in time dedicated to the role was that staff, and particularly the chief executive, needed additional support. This reason was given by 32 per cent of chairs.

Other common reasons included additional time spent in meetings, including more frequent board meetings, which was high­lighted by 25 per cent of respondents, and time taken up by Covid-19-related funding concerns and crisis management, cited by 24 per cent.

In a few cases, the time commitment went even further, with one respondent saying that establishing a Covid-19 safety plan, staffing problems and recruitment had kept them working more than 40 hours a week. Another respondent said they had stepped down from a paid position to give them more time to focus on chairing.

Rosalind Oakley, chief executive of the Association of Chairs, describes the results as “worrying”, but says she was not surprised by the amount of work highlighted by the survey.

“We’ve spent the year supporting chairs, so we see every day how dedicated our membership is,” she says.

A certain level of commitment is arguably to be expected from people who are invested enough to join a membership body, but only 51 per cent of the survey’s respondents were current AoC members, and six per cent were former members – suggesting that the issues, and the dedication, are much more widespread.

In comments gathered as part of the survey, chairs said they had dealt with Covid-19-specific problems in fundraising, financing, remote working and operating services safely.

But they also highlighted that day-to-day governance issues such as recruiting trustees with the right skills, dealing with difficult board dynamics, ensuring inclusion and diversity, and managing the relationship with the chief executive had not gone away.

“Obviously everyone is under strain and a lot of that is pandemic-specific,” Oakley says. “But what we’ve heard time and time again, and one of the reasons we set up the AoC, is that it’s an incredibly lonely role.”

The loneliness of leadership is widely acknowledged in relation to the chief executive role, she says, but the isolation and challenges of voluntary leadership are less recognised.

The solution that both Oakley and the report point to is “better support, better training and more understanding of what a good chair is”.

She says: “What comes through in the report is that a lot of the traditional stuff around governance has been process-driven rather than about the soft side, around relationship-building.”

And relationship-building has been key to the other picture that emerges from the report, amid the concerns over long working hours and difficult dilemmas – 44 per cent of chairs said their motivation had increased during the pandemic, while just 13 per cent said it had decreased.

Those who found themselves more motivated cited the close and increasingly supportive relationship between the board and staff as they worked together to tackle the challenges.

Similarly, 42 per cent of respondents said board relationships had improved over the past year, and 41 per cent of those chairing an organisation with a chief executive said their relationship with them had improved.

Oakley says: “What we’re seeing is that there is more motivation where the relationships are strong – we’re not entirely sure what’s driving what, but the quality of relationships within the board and with the chief executive is really important to how well the organisation as a whole performs and to resilience and the motivation of the chair. Those two things are symbiotic.”

But equally, a minority of chairs have not had this experience. More than one in 10 (14 per cent) respondents reported that relationships with their boards had become worse, with eight per cent saying that their relationship with the organisation’s chief executive had deteriorated.

Ultimately, Oakley says, it’s likely that some chairs will walk away from the role after the pandemic. “There’s more fragility in the charity sector now and the difficulties of the business models have been laid bare.”

She warns that there are challenging times ahead for chairs, whose leadership is crucial to maintaining the morale and resilience of the organisation, as they assess how it will need to adapt in order to survive.

“There will be those who absolutely rise to the challenge, but we need to support them – the danger otherwise is you’ll get people who are over-tired and demoralised, and you’ll get a downward spiral,” Oakley says.

“It’s worth remembering that, for those of us who are getting paid for what we’re doing, often there’s more professional support. Chairs are taking on so much voluntarily, the least we can do is provide a bit more support.”

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