Joe Saxton: Improving trusteeship will take more than just a code

The sector needs a dedicated body to support trustees and raise standards, says our columnist

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

The new Code of Good Governance for charities is a fantastic guide that shows how trustees can make sure their house is in order. Its revision comes at a good time as trustees and trusteeship have moved centre stage, as a weak spot in charities’ modus operandi. The code could be a major ingredient for improving governance.

The problem is that the code seems to rather more than a key part of a plan for improving governance. It’s the only tool in the sector’s toolbox right now. The problem with this is that the code is rather like the curriculum for a course, and to make that curriculum work we need the lessons, the tutors, the revision guides, the exams and the mark scheme. And it’s not clear that we have any of them.

I chair a charity and one of my trustees recently complained that I was ignoring their views. She had emailed her union to ask what to do, but they hadn’t replied. What other sources of support are there for her? The code may give her an idea on how we should behave, but it doesn’t give her any support when things don’t work. There isn’t a single email address in it. True to its egalitarian nature the support is divided across all the multiple organisations behind it. There is no list of those trustee boards who are abiding by it, or who aren’t.

Compare the resource we put into trusteeship with another sector ‘weak spot’ fundraising. Fundraising has a new regulator with 20 or more staff. Charities have to pay a fee, and sign up to the regulator or they will be named and shamed and a complaints process for those that don’t comply with the fundraising code of practice. The Institute of Fundraising has a turnover of more than £4m a year, numerous courses and thousands of members. All to improve the practice of fundraising.

But what about the resources put into charity governance? I am not aware of a single full-time job in any sector body dedicated to charity governance.

There are some part-time ones, or where an individual has a number of duties including charity governance. The point is that given the resource, the energy and the effort put into improving fundraising, it is hard to conclude anything other than that governance is low down the sector’s list of priorities, based on the resource rather than the rhetoric invested in it.

If we are serious about governance we need a body dedicated to improving it. We have a dedicated body for fundraising, communications, finance, chief executives, social enterprise, small charities, to name but a few. The closest we get for governance is the Association of Chairs. I think it is time for this to morph into a body for all trustees.

A dedicated trustee body has so much that it could drive forward. It could set up an accreditation programme for the code. It could create a raft of training and best practice ideas. It could help individual trustees with mentoring and support. It could bring together under one roof the best ideas and the best support for trustees, as well as raising awareness for individual trustees of the support available.

Let me put my argument another way. Having trustee support and development dissipated between all the organisations behind the governance code is the status quo that got us into this mess. Why should more of the same make things any better?

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy

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