The Meningitis Trust is a pioneer of trustee appraisal among smaller charities.
The trust, which has income of £3.5 million and 65 staff, has set up a formal appraisal system for its 12 trustees, carried out by chairperson Geoff Shaw with support from the charity's human resources director.
The driver behind the new system is chief executive Philip Kirby, who says: "I'm very keen that trustees should be supported so they can deliver as much value as possible."
Trustees fill out a form identifying how they want their role to develop in the coming year and what training and development needs they may have.
"I sit down with the trustee and we discuss any underutilised skills they may have as well as any concerns that are on their minds," says Shaw.
The process is two-way, he says, as the trustee gives Shaw feedback on his own performance as chairperson. Copies of the forms and discussions are sent to HR director Kate Logan, who oversees training and development support.
Shaw stresses that the appraisal is a supportive process rather than criticising trustees. Nevertheless, if there are problem areas, such as poor attendance at meetings, these will be raised.
"It's an opportunity for trustees to meet me on a one-to-one basis and be able to say things they may be reluctant to say in a public meeting," says Shaw.
Philip Kirby says around £2,000 has been earmarked this year for training and development of trustees.
"This can help in many areas," says Kirby. "For example, we may have a trustee who is interested in a media handling course and if that fits in with the needs of the charity we could help them."
He adds that he does not believe appraisal will put off future recruitment of trustees.
"Our trustees are driving the strategy of the organisation so it seems obvious that we should try to support them in their development.
"They understand that when they agree to become trustees they have certain responsibilities and will be expected to play an effective role in the charity."
A TRUSTEE'S EXPERIENCE: SUE HILDER AT BTCV
The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) has experimented with different forms of trustee appraisal but found it difficult to carry out effectively.
One approach involved bringing the board's honorary officers together once a year with the group director and chief executive to give each other mutual appraisal.
"We'd all meet together in a room and would spend about 15 minutes on each person, giving them feedback," says deputy chair Sue Hilder.
But it didn't really work. "The meetings were a bit strange, partly because of the group dynamic, and the tendency was to tell each other 'you're doing a great job' and not to tackle areas that were more 'uncomfortable'," she says.
The difficulties were caused in part by the fact that those giving feedback had had no formal training in appraisal, believes Hilder.
There was also the issue of trust. "It's quite difficult to do appraisals because you need a baseline of trust and where you have a lot of different personalities involved that can be hard."
Another approach involved trustees drawing up "personal development plans" with the help of training staff and the chairperson. The aim was for trustees to highlight what they wanted to achieve in the coming year in order to develop their knowledge of areas such as charity law and their performance as trustees.
The development plan would be reviewed a year later in an interview with the chairperson.
In theory, this was a good idea, says Hilder, but in practice it was difficult to make it work.
"You can take this approach with a member of staff but with a trustee who may only be attending four meetings a year, one session with a trainer is not going to make much difference."
She adds that there needs to be continuing support or mentoring for trustees, if an appraisal system is going to work.
"You need to have someone who is willing to contact the trustee regularly and ask them how they're getting on with their development objectives. At the end of the day, the system relies heavily on the trustee's motivation to develop."
Trustee appraisals are a way of developing skills but they can also arouse suspicion. Patrick McCurry looks at how the right mix of training and approach can make it work.
When Tesse Akpeki had an appraisal of her performance as trustee by the chairperson of the charity she volunteered for, it was uncomfortable.
"The problem was that neither she nor I had a clear idea of what we were trying to achieve and I left the interview feeling a bit angry and under attack," says Akpeki, whose day job is head of board development at NCVO.
Part of the difficulty too was that the chairperson had only just taken the post and so there had not been time for the two to build a relationship and develop trust.
The second year things were much smoother. "We both knew what the point of the appraisal was and that it was in the interests of the charity," she says.
Even though the first time had been difficult, Akpeki drew some valuable lessons from the experience.
"One benefit of discussing my performance and what else I could do was that it gave me 'permission' to do things as a trustee that otherwise I might have been reluctant to try, for fear of treading on the toes of managers or other trustees."
But the experience also taught her of the necessity to make sure the objectives of such appraisals are clearly understood, both by the trustee undergoing them and the person delivering them.
When everyone understands the need for appraisals and they are underpinned by support and training frameworks, they can be extremely helpful. Ideally the people doing the appraising should have training or experience in giving feedback.
"Delivering feedback is a skill because it can become quite personal and you need to be able to ensure people don't feel under attack," says Akpeki.
It may seem strange that some charities are embarking on trustee appraisals when, many would argue, there are far more pressing priorities for charities, such as recruiting trustees in the first place.
But if you see appraisal as a tool in supporting trustees and helping them develop their skills, it can be regarded as a key part of trustee retention.
Stephen Bubb, head of the charity chief executives body ACEVO, says: "We believe all trustee boards should have an appraisal system in place.
"With the increasing pressure on charities to be more open and accountable, boards of trustees should lead the way with evaluations of their performance."
Despite this, relatively few charities carry out performance appraisal of trustees. While 63 per cent of charity chief executives are formally appraised, only 16 per cent of trustee boards are, according to an ACEVO survey.
The real figure could be even lower, as the 16 per cent figure probably includes appraisal of the skills of boards as a whole, rather than assessing the performance of individual trustees.
The reasons for the lack of appraisals are down to a mixture of factors.
These include the perception, particularly among smaller charities which find recruiting trustees difficult, that because trustees are volunteers, introducing appraisal could scare them off or put them on the defensive.
There are also the internal politics of many voluntary organisations to deal with.
"Staff often don't really see the value of trustees and because it is staff who effectively control the day-to-day resources in charities, that can prevent trustee-related schemes getting off the ground," says one trustee, who asked not to be named.
Other reasons include the fact that trustee appraisal is different from appraising a member of staff, given that staff all have line managers who they work with on a daily basis while the only "line manger" trustees have is the chairperson, who they may see only a few times a year.
Another obstacle is that the chairperson, the most obvious person to carry out appraisals, may already have too much on their plate and, in any case, may lack the required skills or training in delivering feedback.
Nevertheless, a growing number of charities are moving towards trustee appraisal as part of a wider board development strategy.
At Arthritis Care, for example, forms have been introduced for trustees to fill out after each board meeting.
Arthritis Care's chief executive William Butler says: "We've been interested in assessing the effectiveness of our board meetings and so introduced a questionnaire a year ago in which trustees are asked what they thought of how the meeting was run, whether they had a chance to participate and so on."
As for performance appraisal in a wider sense, this is something the charity is looking at, says Butler: "The question is whether we can adapt the appraisal system we use for managers to reflect the different role of trustees," she says.
Chairperson Terry Oliver says the use of post-meeting questionnaires has allowed trustees to raise issues with her.
"They can give their views on how I chaired the meeting and if there are things they were unhappy about, I can speak to them later on the phone," she adds.
Butler acknowledges that this does not amount to an appraisal of trustees but says that board development is an organic process.
"You can't do everything at once and, at this stage, we are looking at people's performance in meetings."
The charity is also in the process of carrying out a skills audit of its trustees, which could feed into future appraisals, but is primarily aimed at ensuring the charity recruits the right kind of trustees in the future.
The way that charities approach trustee appraisals is varied. Some have informal systems based on chats between the chairperson and individual trustees, while others incorporate forms that trustees fill in before an appraisal interview. The trustees must explain what they feel their skills and strengths are and in which areas they could benefit from further training or development.
The appraisal itself will frequently be held as a one-to-one with the chairperson.
Andrew Brown, deputy chairman of the Charity Trustee Networks, says: "It has to be the chairperson who delivers feedback because sometimes unpleasant things have to be said and they are the only person who can do that."
Akpeki agrees that the chairperson is the natural person to deliver feedback.
But she adds that in some cases the board and chairperson may decide that someone else may be more appropriate.
"The chairperson may accept that they don't perhaps have the skills required and may delegate it to another board member," says Akpeki.
Even if the chairperson is skilled at giving feedback, that still leaves the problem of who appraises them. This is a real challenge, says Akpeki, given that not only in charities but in most organisations the chair is regarded as "sitting next to God".
"In many charities, the chairperson may not like the idea of being appraised and, in turn, other trustees may be reluctant to carry it out," she says.
At Charity Trustee Networks, a small charity, the appraisal of the chairperson is carried out by the deputy Andrew Brown. It's an informal system in which Brown speaks to the other trustees on the phone, canvassing their opinions on how effective the chairperson has been and what general comments they may have on her performance.
"She's someone with long experience in the voluntary sector and is keen to get feedback, even if it is someone saying that what she has been doing has irritated them."
CASE STUDY THE MENINGITIS TRUST'S APPRAISAL SYSTEM