At Work: Law and Governance - Regulation with Rosie

The Charity Commission's Rosie Chapman on getting service users involved.

I'm still left open-mouthed at the 'we don't want to do that' attitude of some trustees to any form of user involvement. An effective charity exists for its beneficiaries, not its trustee board, and its services will be built around their needs.

For trustees with no experience of involving users, it can seem daunting.

How do you do it? What happens if users want different things? How can you ensure user involvement is a help, rather than just time-consuming?

You can't know if you're giving your users what they want if you don't ask them. This applies just as much to proposed changes in services. Questionnaires and online surveys are two ways of getting this information, but the parameters of involvement need to be clear.

Let users know what you'll do with the information they give and when you'll report back to them. If in doubt, under-promise and over-deliver.

But be open-minded about what you might find and make it clear where the final decision-making lies - whether it's a group vote, a decision purely for the trustees or a mix.

Being open with users about the limitations of what can be done actually helps when resources are stretched. The responsibility for decisions stops with the charity's trustees, but users can suggest solutions or help in agreeing priorities when funds won't stretch to delivering them all.

As for users becoming trustees, this can provide a board with vital relevant experience, so we encourage it. See the Users on Board: beneficiaries who become trustees guidance on our website for more details.

There's also advice from the NCVO and Acevo to help charities involve their users. We're currently pulling out all the stops to expand our customer network, and the benefits to us couldn't be clearer.

- Rosie Chapman is executive director of policy and effectiveness at the commission.

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