Zoe Amar: How Covid-19’s digital revolution could change charity governance

Traditional perceptions of trustees are under pressure because of the rapid decision-making around Covid-19. These could be changes for the better

Zoe Amar

Since the Covid-19 crisis began we’ve seen a huge shift in societal behaviours and how charities operate. Could this trigger a seismic shift in the boardroom?

A shake up of charity governance could be one of the biggest changes in our sector post-coronavirus. With charities focusing on digital fundraising, service delivery and remote working, we might see different skills, behaviours and processes on charity boards.

Chris Willis Pickup, charities and social ventures partner at the law firm Taylor Vinters, agrees that change is already happening. “The traditional idea of a trustee being a slightly staid but reliable person of integrity is under pressure as trustees are pushed to respond to fast-moving operational pressures and to think strategically,” he says, pointing out that a quarterly board meeting won’t facilitate the rapid decision-making required in a pandemic.

If trustees are to contribute meaningfully, he says, they will have to work in an agile way, supported by the right technology, with an increased need for adaptability, problem-solving and communication skills. Perhaps board meetings themselves will need to be more creative, as in this example from the Children’s Trust.

The pace of the crisis and accelerated digital change has already upped the ante for trustees. Patrick Dunne, chair of the EY Foundation and author of Boards, thinks “a new bar has been set in terms of being digitally savvy".

No one knows how the transition to a post-lockdown world will play out. Boards will need to plan for a world where nothing is fixed and there are many different scenarios to factor in. Dunne therefore encourages trustees to think about risk and opportunity management in a different way, “planning for consequences rather than causes or events".

To succeed at this, boards must have a variety of perspectives around the table. We urgently need more diverse trustees and virtual board meetings should widen the talent pool from which charities can draw.

Clare Laxton, a trustee at the National Children's Bureau, tells me: “Every board I know is looking at increasing diversity. Being able to join board meetings virtually will open trustee opportunities up to a much wider range of people, such as those who don't live in London or can't take lots of time in the day to travel and attend meetings."

In the long term these changes could make charity boards more exciting and dynamic, yet the demands on them will be significant. Trustees will need to be on top of how their charity is using tech in its crisis response while simultaneously planning for a digital-first future.

D’Arcy Myers, chair of the Association of Charitable Organisations, is preparing for governance to come under greater scrutiny from the regulator, stakeholders and volunteers.

He says: “They might ask you how you managed your charity through the Covid-19 crisis." To answer that question, he believes, trustees will need “a forward-looking view of their charity’s sustainability".

Boards will need the space to do this effectively. Dr Tony Breslin, director at the consultancy Breslin Public Policy, feels that trustees need time to reflect (which realistically might be possible only when the dust has settled) and to be “open to acting on the lessons of the lockdown and to using some of this time to reflect on pre-virus practice and post-virus opportunity".

Perhaps the crisis has simply escalated an existing trend. The best boards have always been forward-thinking, engaged and inclusive. Now is the time for boards to ask themselves if these are the hallmarks of how they work and, if not, how to make the most of this opportunity to reinvent themselves.

Zoe Amar is founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar

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