Penny Wilson: Questions for trustees in a time of crisis

Covid-19 has left many wondering if their charities will survive: providing support means taking on difficult choices

Penny Wilson
Penny Wilson

The toughest time to be a trustee, by far, is when your charity faces a crisis. For many trustees, it can suddenly transform from giving one day a month into something resembling a full-time job. This time, for the many trustees facing crises in their professional lives, or difficult times in their personal lives, it can be particularly stressful.

A lot of us are sitting, staring at balance sheets, wondering if our charities are going to survive. Trustees are passionate and they won’t let their organisations go without a fight, but sadly some won't make it.

Some trustees are already closing their charities, something that might have seemed unthinkable just a couple of months ago. Others have put their organisations into a form of hibernation, with a very uncertain future.

Charities are being forced to take tough decisions and to innovate. This is a time, as a trustee, when you need to have a really strong helicopter view over everything the charity does, and how it’s done. Here are half a dozen questions that might help.

  1. How do we save as much as we can? Is it time to close or to merge? For a charity trustee looking at a difficult situation, it’s first about balancing present and future beneficiary need. You want to save the organisation, and the jobs of any staff, but absolutely most vital is to preserve the services and the institutional knowledge that allows your charity to serve its beneficiaries. What’s the best way to do that? For most charities, it’s about paring things back. But too many charities had already been pushed to the edge by a tough funding environment, and an insistence on low core costs and low reserves. In this case, the temptation is to keep it going as long as possible, but it’s worth thinking about how you might close or merge the charity and preserve the most essential parts of it in an orderly fashion.
  2. Which of our services are most essential, and which can be lost? This gives trustees a chance to think about the charity’s most essential services. What cannot be lost? If funding’s fallen by 30 per cent, it’s no good trying to salami-slice everything. Some things must be closed and others kept. What is the one thing your charity does that beneficiaries cannot live without? This is a chance to go right back to the core idea of user need and try to pin down the absolute essentials. How sure are you of your service users, the problems they face and your ability to solve them? Even now, in a crisis, there’s time to do some research and ask.
  3. Where can we cut costs and find income? Too often for a charity, the answer is “nowhere”. Costs were often already cut too far. But sometimes this is a chance to look again at business fundamentals and see what can change. One charity I know happens to be at the end of its lease. With all staff and volunteers working remotely, should it renew or let the lease lapse? It has very specific building needs and it won't be easy to find another building that meets these requirements. But currently it is paying rent on a building that is sitting empty. It’s a difficult decision. New funding streams are emerging, though they are far outweighed by the ones lost. Charities are finding new ways to fundraise and grant-givers have responded well. Perhaps this is a chance for a change of model.
  4. How much of the reserves can we use up? For those charities not facing an imminent existential threat, one question is about whether it makes sense to cut back and balance the books, or whether it’s time to break the glass and get out the emergency funds. For some beneficiary groups this is a terrifyingly difficult time, and it’s important to step up help. But doing so will mean taking risks with future viability. Another difficult decision.
  5. How can we deliver services in a different way? Many charities are being pushed to deliver digitally. For many of us who have been moving slowly in this direction, this is a push that will force us out of the nest and into the air. In some cases we won’t be going back to the way things were, and that will be no bad thing. But it’s not practical for everyone. Hospices can’t deliver their services remotely. Charities working with elderly and disadvantaged people might find that many of their beneficiaries simply don’t have access to the internet or to the right technology. You can’t deliver digital services to someone who doesn’t have a phone or a computer.
  6. What can we do now to make sure the charity is in the best shape after the crisis? Most charities will survive this, in some form or another, but it’s often not the crisis that gets you, but the aftermath. In some cases, the best role for the trustees will not be to get involved in the here and now at all. Perhaps the best thing to do is to leave that to the chief executive or a subcommittee of trustees, and focus instead on what might happen in three and six months’ time and what might be coming down the track next. How do we get ourselves ready for another year of coronavirus?

This is a tough time for very many charities and there are wildly different problems depending on where you are. It’s a time of rapid change for beneficiaries, for public sector contracting and for the wider social environment in which charities operate. Up and down the country, trustees are doing a fantastic job working with chief executives and senior staff to keep the lights on and to emerge afterwards. I wish you all the best of luck.

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

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