The voluntary sector relies for its success on the support and involvement of the general public. For many years this support was assumed by charities. But the third sector has not escaped the increasing scepticism with which all institutions have come to be viewed. If we are to continue to enjoy public support, we need to be demonstrably accountable to the public.
An important element of accountability is showing that we are both efficient and effective, and for this to be the case, we need both good management and governance.
Charities are becoming better at developing good management structures and proper staff appraisal and development systems. What we have seen less of is the provision of support, development and evaluation for trustees.
Unless this problem is recognised and addressed, the imbalance is a recipe for tension and conflict.
In recent discussions around the Performance and Innovation Unit's review of Charity Law and Regulation, the quality of trustees, and the support available to them, was highlighted. There is growing interest in looking at how trustees can assess their own performance (for example, the NCVO Trustee Unit offers a pack on self-evaluation) and a growing range of materials, such as role descriptions, codes of conduct, and clear parameters for delegation and decision-making. These tools strengthen the potential for boards of trustees to be effective, provide guidance for existing trustees and a basis for the recruitment of others.
However, having them is one thing: checking their impact on the effective running of the organisation is trickier. Progress needs to be measured and its causes tracked back. This evidence of effectiveness should then underpin a move from the production of financially based annual reports to reports which offer much broader information, including how staff and trustees are appraised.
As our operating environment becomes more complex, the demands on trustees increase. With a growing breed of professional managers in the voluntary sector, it is crucial that some system of board appraisal exists, and that trustees are encouraged to look at their performance alongside managers and ask, "How was it for us?