Penny Wilson: Mistakes I have made as a trustee

I'm reflecting on my biggest trustee blunders so you can avoid them

I wrote an article in Third Sector recently about the highs and lows of being a small charity chief executive.

But I don’t reserve my greatest mistakes for my day job – I am also an imperfect human being when it comes to being a trustee.

Self-awareness and self-criticism are not traits that we encourage enough from trustees. So I thought I would share some of my ginormous gaffes so that you can avoid them.

You’re welcome.

  • Not being awkward enough

I have not always been a difficult trustee. It’s tempting to paddle along happily, nodding things through, getting on fabulously with fellow board members and not really engaging the brain.

But it’s much better to try to be contrary. To probe whether there is another way, to check that we have sought input from the people who matter and ask the seemingly obvious questions.

In summary, there are plenty of reasons to row against the tide, encourage debate and challenge.

  • Failing to call out poor behaviour

I have not always called out bad behaviour from fellow trustees. This is unforgivable.

I did not say anything to the trustee who said another trustee shouldn’t become chair because she had tattoos.

I was not outraged enough when a chair said he couldn’t see what on earth a younger trustee might bring (the organisation supported young people but had no young people on its board).

Now I try to be braver. I recently took a deep breath and told a fellow trustee who said he might offer to become the next chair that I didn’t think he had enough time because he hardly ever attended meetings.

  • Ignoring warning signs

I was a trustee of a charity that had to close down. This is not unusual, but I should have seen it coming, particularly as a fellow trustee tried to warn us that our funding model was unsustainable. Optimism stopped me from seeing the writing on the wall.

On another board, I didn’t do my homework before I joined. The chair was also the (unpaid) chief executive.

On paper, this was a disaster waiting to happen; in reality, it was even worse. He never performed his agreed actions and never answered emails. He entirely blocked the smooth running of the board and the organisation.

I ended up resigning, alongside (eventually) every single other trustee.

On another occasion, an office volunteer became the chair. I spoke out about the possible conflict of interest, but not loudly enough.

It was a disaster: the chief executive had been the volunteer’s boss for some time and they could not leave that relationship behind. The result was the chief executive saying “Jump!” and the chair saying “How high?” – with dire consequences for the organisation.

  • Relying too heavily on the treasurer

When I first became a trustee I modelled the behaviour of those around me.

When it came to the finances, everyone fell silent and did some Olympic-level yawning as the treasurer talked through the numbers. There were no questions and there was no effort to engage with the budget, which was dealt with as speedily as possible.

I now make a considerable effort to understand and analyse the numbers. “I’m not a numbers person,” is not a valid excuse.

Most trustees do not go around saying they are “not a words person” so can’t read the papers. We should not offer such excuses to bypass our financial responsibilities.

  • Not putting mission front and centre

Sometimes, I have lost sight of why I am a trustee. I have not put the organisation’s mission first. I’m ashamed to write that, but sometimes we are so engulfed in the administration of governance that we put it ahead of ensuring that we’re delivering impact.

There are other trustee mistakes that I haven’t been so guilty of. In particular, being a charity chief executive myself makes me acutely aware of chief executive/board relations. Beware that this is where many deep, dark dangers lurk for the oblivious trustee.

I aim to be a good trustee. It sounds simple but it takes hard work and some difficult reflection about where I could improve.

Perhaps others would like to join me?

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting On Board

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