Penny Wilson: The five modes of ineffective governance

From interventionist and ineffectual boards to the indecisive, intransigent and impractical, this is how to set your board up to go wrong

Penny Wilson
Penny Wilson

Way back in 2006, Julia Unwin, former charity chief executive and governance expert, outlined what she called the five modes of effective governance: activities that charity boards should be doing in order to maximise their impact. Boards, she said, exist to support the executive, scrutinise activity, set strategy, stretch the goals of the charity to see if it can achieve more, and act as stewards for the long term.

I wrote in my previous article about how there might be contradictions between the current legal position of trustees as having responsibility for everything and the needs of the executive, which often place these in contrast.

This made me think about what boards are for: why they exist and what they can deliver. Which in turn made me wonder about the habits of ineffective boards and how charity governance can go wrong.

So, without further ado, these are (some of) the ways that boards can work to make sure their charity is not effective.

Interventionist

The job of the board is to support the executive and the staff, but the interventionist board won’t let well alone. It's the football dad who wants to kick every ball.

This behaviour is often the preserve of those with founder syndrome and of chairs who are also big donors. These boards are constantly intervening in the charity’s affairs, telling the chief executive what to do and questioning everything that goes on. They can’t let well alone, they think they could do everything better and they make life very hard for competent executives to deliver what they need.

Ineffectual

At the other end of the scale are the boards that won’t intervene when they do need to, particularly when the executive either lacks capacity or there are human resources issues in the way staff are being managed.

Every board faces a delicate balancing act between intervening too much and not intervening enough. It’s possible to do both at the same time, micro-managing some things but letting gaping holes go unpunished.

An ineffectual response is often a function of a lack of knowledge on the board. Trustees simply don’t know they have a problem – or they don’t want to know.

There’s some justification for the latter, too. Boards are usually very part time, but crises are labour-intensive. Boards can really struggle to commit the necessary time.

Indecisive

A lack of board time is a great reason for things not getting done in the charity sector. All too often, an idea gets taken to the board because it requires a significant investment or change in the charity’s direction, but for one reason or another it gets kicked back again with a request for more information or a suggestion about how to do things slightly differently. It can be a deeply frustrating feeling for many staff working on those projects, too, who have no idea what’s happening.

Boards like this have often got hung up on detail. They’ve got into the accounts, say, and focused on something they don’t quite understand in the expenses policy.

Or perhaps they're focused on avoiding risk. Some boards get so worried about the rules and the consequences of any action that they dither and mitigate until both the risk and the opportunity are gone.

Intransigent

"When the facts change, I change my mind," said John Maynard Keynes, the great economist. "What do you do, sir?"

If you’re a charity board member, the answer is often "keep going".

Boards exist partly to approve budgets and set strategies, but from time to time the relationship seems to be the wrong way round. It's worth remembering that the budget exists to serve the board, not the board to serve the budget.

From the moment it's set, a strategy is wrong. Real life intervenes. But too many boards can’t or won’t adapt. So, all too often, we see boards plodding on, pursuing a revenue stream that has turned into a desiccated riverbed, still stubbornly insisting that the forecast said it was going to rain.

Impractical

Then there’s the board that won’t finish things, won’t stick to what it’s agreed and is always focused on what's over the next hill. This is the kind of board that throws up great ideas with only one flaw: they won’t work.

There can be few words that create less enthusiasm within a charity than "the chair has had an idea".

If you’re a mid-level charity staffer and your boss comes and perches on the edge of your desk after a board meeting, you can almost feel the time that is about to be wasted and the increase in your workload that is on its way.

Boards need to be careful with their ideas. If you genuinely have a good idea, great. But if you don’t, no one is going to tell you that it can’t be done. Either it’s going to be quietly buried somewhere, or some poor Joe Schmo is going to be tasked with making it happen, even though they can’t.

So there we go. The truth is that there are far more than five "I"s we could look at, and many other letters too, because there are lots and lots of ways which governance can go wrong. Governance is hard.

It was interesting to me, as I reflected on these things, how often too much of a particular behaviour and not enough of that behaviour often throw up problems in the board room. That’s why we focus so much, when recruiting, on finding trustees whose approaches balance one another out. Too much of any one thing, on any board, is always going to end in tears.

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting on Board, a charity that focuses on trustee recruitment

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