The Association of Chairs is five years old this month, and in the midst of the usual helter skelter of small charity life, it felt timely to step back and reflect on our journey to date and what we’ve learned on the way about governance and leadership.
With more than 600 members and an active programme, we have much to celebrate and many people to thank. It feels like a success story, but it has been an uncertain journey. Surprising now, perhaps, when there is greater recognition of the impact chairs can make on governance and leadership, for good and sadly sometimes for ill.
Yet, when we set out, chairs had long been the Cinderellas of the charity world: only a few were feted and high profile. The role was too often misunderstood, being seen either as merely a matter of running board meetings or selfless heroism in steering the organisation.
We conducted a literature review and found remarkably little analysis of the chair’s role in charities and not-for-profits. Even the Charity Commission paid little attention, not identifying chairs as a key group with which to communicate. There was a practical reason for this neglect: in charity and company law, all trustees and directors are equal – equally responsible and liable. The chair is just one more member of the board. As if.
Added to that, organisations specifically for trustees had not flourished. That’s why an organisation specifically for chairs felt like a leap into the unknown. We had taken soundings from incumbent chairs, some funders, governance specialists and other interested parties, who offered advice and were enthusiastic, but not necessarily optimistic.
Our first challenge was simply finding chairs. There were no databases: most were reached through their organisations. So we had to launch in the spirit of "if we build it, they will come". And they have. Our progress to date has been built on three factors. First, and most important of all, a real appetite for learning among chairs, who have demonstrated an enthusiasm for our guides and networking with their peers that challenges some of the more lurid media headlines.
Second, we owe a huge debt to the sector for its welcome and support: we used the advice of wise counsellors, supporters and "early adopters" to test themes and topics that resonated; some key foundations and corporate partners have been very generous; and the long-established umbrella bodies have welcomed us at policy discussions and debates. It takes a village to raise a charity.
Third, like all small start-up charities, we began with the passion and commitment of five founder trustees and no staff. Five years on, we have an over-worked director, a small but wonderful staff team and seven still very hands-on trustees.
What have we learned? Our five-year journey has taught us a great deal about the sector’s cohort of chairs. The role of chairs brings with it responsibilities and demands that need to be separately addressed and supported, beyond the chair’s trustee duties. The Essential Trustee is not enough.
Chairs are a remarkably diverse group in terms of professional background and life experiences, but when we bring them together they recognise their common challenges.
For those who have staff, managing and balancing the relationship with their chief executives or lead officers is a critical challenge and a prime focus of time and attention.
Chairs put a great deal of time and energy into managing board relationships; board dynamics are a major issue for many.
Our chairs might come for the speaker but stay for the networking – learning with and from their peers is highly valued.
The ones we engage know they have much to learn – and they want to do so.
There are in our chair community both leaders and learners, and both types have a role to play; many of our members and contributors are thoughtful, experienced, skilled and keen to share.
But even an experienced chair can face a difficult challenge for the first time and want guidance, whether it’s a personnel dispute, a possible merger or a financial crisis.
The chair of the Charity Commission recently called for more "charitable attitudes and behaviour". The evidence of our work is that chairs want to lead boards to consistently improve – they want to excel personally and enable their organisations to add value in delivering their charitable purposes. We should acknowledge and celebrate that more. In all our conversations and research, the word that comes up most about the chair’s role is "lonely". Boards often do not fully appreciate the additional pressures and expectations they put on their chairs. It is an unpaid volunteer role that takes far longer than the recruitment brief said. But it’s usually done willingly and with huge commitment.
More than anything, I hope that five years of the Association of Chairs has helped our community feel a little less lonely. But our work is just beginning.
Ruth Lesirge is co-founder and chair of the Association of Chairs