Peter Stanford: Boards should be serious, but don't forget to have fun

An informal approach to meetings shouldn't prevent trustees from being thorough, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

What's the best tone to set for a trustee meeting? Formal, informal or somewhere in between?

The question popped into my head after reading the Charity Commission's latest annual compliance report on the doubling of the number of 'serious incidents' at charities reported to them in the past year - up from 451 to 849 in 12 months. Why weren't trustees picking up wrongdoing at their charities long before it got referred upwards?

Part of me couldn't help wondering if that was because some of them were themselves the wrongdoers. But after many years of meeting other trustees, the bigger part of me believes that only a tiny percentage of them fit that description.

So it must come down to incompetence. If that is the case, could it be partly because trustee meetings do not sufficiently prioritise the inquisitorial element - the willingness to sniff out anything rank? Or, to put it another way, are they not serious enough?

All charity chairs bring a bit of themselves to how they conduct a meeting. My own preferred style is relatively relaxed, or at least I hope so. That is certainly my intention. One fellow trustee used to address me always as "Mr Chairman" and make his remarks "through the chair", but there was always a twinkle in his eye as he said it.

Light touch

Of course, we minuted matters carefully. Where appropriate, we sought legal advice in advance or, occasionally, at the meeting. And key governance responsibilities were delegated to sub-committees that reported back to the main board to ensure that, please God, we would never end up in the dock at the Charity Commission or, worse, the High Court. But it was all done with a light touch and slight impatience with anything pedantic.

I wanted to avoid a repeat of my experience at other boards I have joined. We would spend hours working through section one, sub-section 5, point 12c of the minutes of the last meeting. A decision over whether to use the word 'would' or 'should' in an amendment to the aforementioned minutes would require what felt like the Treaty of Versailles.

Making sure we had a pinpoint accurate record of our last gathering meant we often had no time left to consider current needs. The result was that we all went home grumpy, irritated, feeling redundant and planning out resignation letters in our heads. There must be a happy medium.

Perhaps I caught a glimpse of it in my recent experience of jury service. Yes, it hardly counts as one of the highlights of my adult life. Seven of the 10 working days for which I was summoned were spent waiting around in a dreary room to be called, trying to catch up on my reading, but mostly agog as I calculated how many productive working hours all those present were squandering. What made it all right, however, was that the officials conveyed to us the gravity of the whole process.

Sitting in judgement of another's actions - to potentially deprive the accused of their liberty - is one of the most onerous duties we can take on as citizens, so it's appropriate that the judicial system displays its seriousness at every turn: in the gowns and wigs of the courtroom, in the bowing and scraping before the judges and in the archaic language used.

Sober moments

Trustee meetings need this sit-up-and-take-it-seriously element (though perhaps without the wigs). I plead guilty to pushing seriousness aside in the past for fear of making proceedings too gloomy.

I still believe that if you want people to give up their free time to attend meetings - especially volunteers from those groups the Charity Commission constantly rebukes us for not targeting, namely the young and busy - then you have to make it enjoyable. Turn proceedings into a pastiche of a 1950s boardroom and your younger recruits will be bemused, intimidated or out of there in a flash.

So keep the open-necked shirts, the vision, the enthusiasm and the sense of a group of pioneers changing the world: but also make time for those more sober moments of burrowing down into the detail, adding up the columns of figures to check that two and two really do make four. The prize is being able to sleep easy at night with your responsibilities.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, former chair of Aspire and director of the Longford Trust

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