In February 2017 an anonymous article by a charity chief executive appeared in The Guardian. It was a scathing attack on charity leadership arguing that trustees and boards were not fit for purpose.
Three years on and these claims are being tested in an unprecedented crisis as trustees are once more under scrutiny. Although Charity Commission guidelines set out the expectations of and requirements for trustees, there is less clarity about how trustees should deal with something on the scale of Covid-19. There is no playbook.
Being a trustee during a third sector crisis is one thing, but leading a charity during a time of crisis across all sectors is completely different. Trustees might not have extra time and headspace for the board if they are fighting fires in every other aspect of their professional and personal lives. But distancing themselves from the impact of the crisis on their charity is not an option.
Tim Willett, a trustee at the Royal Osteoporosis Society and executive director of funding, brand and communications at Action on Hearing Loss accepts that there is no standard blueprint for all trustees and all charities. “With a well-established executive team, the board might meet more regularly during this crisis, but still maintain a lighter touch than in a charity where the leader is new or the executive team less experienced,” he says.
“It is important to strike a balance between letting the executive team get on with it and being supportive, but there’s a risk that trustees distance themselves at the very moment that their advice is needed most.”
Sometimes, getting involved is the only way forward. Janine Chandler, owner of the consultancy Jump in Puddles, is chair of trustees at the career guidance charity MyBigCareer. Before Covid-19 the charity had an annual income below £5,000. An influx of funding for front-line work during the pandemic meant that overnight MyBigCareer became a medium-sized charity receiving grants of up to £200,000. It had to scale up quickly to meet the need.
“Everything changed,” says Chandler. “As the chair, I became much more involved in day-to-day activities as we changed the charity to support more young people.”
When times are tough, trustees also need to agree the right balance between innovation and caution.
Matt Griffiths, chief executive of Youth Music, says it is important for trustees to avoid mission creep. “In a time of crisis, the likelihood of drift increases,” he says. “For example, in their urgency to go online, some music and arts charities haven’t thought about who will benefit, or about ease of access and financing. The better examples are where charities have taken a more considered approach before jumping in."
But he stresses that boards should still encourage innovation during a crisis: “Keep to your purpose, but how you achieve it will have to change for these new times. Encouraging innovation becomes more important, rather than a board hunkering down and hoping things will go back to how they were.”
In the spirit of snatching opportunity from the jaws of a crisis, there have been some improvements in the way boards have operated during the pandemic. Tim Willett is enjoying a more agile, paperless approach to board meetings. “We’re managing through a crisis with eight-page board reports where there used to be hundreds,” he says. “I hope we can operate like this during stable times too.”
And, as Chandler points out, “Covid-19 has forced trustees to have open and honest conversations because we have to make fundamental decisions quickly”.
One of the main criticisms levelled at trustees in the 2017 Guardian article was a lack of accountability. While boards reviewed the performance of the executive, there was little appetite for self-scrutiny. The Covid-19 pandemic provides a great opportunity for charity boards to perform a thorough review of their own performance during this crisis so that they are better prepared for the next one.