Uday Thakkar: Strategy needs to encompass change

Boards can become too inwardly focused during tough economic times and must remember to react to external forces, says our columnist

Uday Thakkar
Uday Thakkar

The sector is constantly changing, which can bring risks as well as opportunities. This is particularly true in the current economic climate, as I argued in my previous article on how trustees can get to grips with finances and cash flow. It is easy for boards to become too inwardly focused and fail to react to external forces in time.

So in this article, I will give my view of how organisations can not only be aware of the changing environment in which they operate, but can also predict changes and react appropriately and quickly to external forces.

The expectation of change needs to be fed into the organisational strategy. The board should constantly measure and monitor the performance of the organisation against its strategic vision. The strategy should also include the anticipated skills requirements of the board: what skills might you need in the future and when do you need to capture them?

The existing board collectively needs to ensure that it knows and understands its members' skills, abilities and networks. Voluntary organisations often lack this depth of knowledge. Resources are too often wasted recruiting for what is already there. Many trustees will also hold back from expressing knowledge or expertise because they have been recruited for one set of skills and do not want to be seen to be stepping on the toes of another trustee.

A strong and dynamic board is one that knows that its members have numerous skills even though they might have been allocated a particular responsibility. Trustees should regularly review what their current and future requirements are in terms of skills. They should be on a constant lookout for people who have these skills and might be recruited in future as trustees or advisers. The board should also review the roles and responsibilities of its members and decide whether they are appropriate or whether there needs to be a change.

Rapid change can require certain abilities and skills. Sudden financial fluctuations quickly expose any lack of experience in boards and management teams. If there is a risk that an organisation will face substantial changes in funding or demand on services, the board needs to act immediately. Does the existing treasurer need additional resources to manage the process of change? Support from an auditor or similar professional could work well, because they would already have some understanding of the organisation and the challenges it faces. Similarly, might it be helpful to seek external support to help with fundraising or human resources?

Making changes to the board in a timely manner is hard, however, and many boards have trustees who are attached emotionally to the organisation but no longer add any value. If circumstances demand it, a change of trustees might be required. Boards need to be collectively brave and implement the change in the same way they would approach necessary staff changes elsewhere in the organisation. Trustees are obliged to ensure the future of their charity. They need to be mindful of this rather than seek simply to perpetuate their presence on the board.

Trustees are going to have to learn to work together much more closely as the demands on them increase. Funding cutbacks mean they will need to meet more regularly to work through periods of potential change. For instance, securing additional funding or working on significant changes in organisational structure and size will be resource-intensive and time-consuming.

As well as supporting each other, trustees need to be seen to be actively supporting and working closely with the management team. Ensure that your board is prepared to meet the coming changes.

- Uday Thakkar is treasurer of Trustee Networks and managing director of the charity consultancy Red Ochre.

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