In the past year, I have worked with a number of charities to review their governance structures. One of these is Samaritans, which has recently made important improvements to its own structure (Third Sector, 1 February).
A recurring theme in many of the reviews has been a recognition that there is often a conflict between having full representation, which usually leads to a large board of trustees, and the need for an effective decision-making body.
A large board can sometimes become little more than an information-receiving group. Some think the answer lies in delegating decision-making to a smaller group of trustees, but problems arising from this can lead to separations of responsibility and authority, and can also create inner cabals with trustees who are seen as first amongst equals. Many organisations have recognised that mixing representation tasks with governance can make it increasingly difficult for either to be carried out effectively.
The separation of the two roles is often the answer to the dilemma. This model requires that the roles and responsibility of trustees rest with a smaller group and the wider representation is through a larger advisory council more akin to a general assembly. This council acts as the organisational conscience and provides a sounding board and source of ideas on matters relating to mission, vision and values.
The responsibilities of a trustee are to be taken seriously and, in accepting their positions, trustees take on duties they must share with their fellow trustees, each bringing their own special skills. Their responsibility is a collective one, which is more readily satisfied if there is the requisite experience, time commitment and involvement present around the table as is consistent with the effective working of the group.
When considering the size and composition of the 'group', it is vital not to forget the important role played by senior management, and to recognise that skills of trustees and executive management should be complementary and not necessarily duplicated.
A number of charities, including the National Trust, the RSA and, most recently, Samaritans, have trimmed their boards and established advisory councils. When considering the size of the governing body, less is often more - ancillary skills can be provided through management, working groups and professional advisers as and when needed.
Pesh Framjee is head of the non-profit unit at Deloitte and special adviser to the Charities Finance Directors' Group.