Trusteeship. This touches on my life from many angles. I am a Trustee – of Impetus Trust, a social investor. I am a CEO who works to a board of Trustees. I have also set up about five organisations all of which have needed a Board of Trustees to run them. Within Boards I have played all the roles. Chair (twice). Secretary (three times) – but never Treasurers. I have seen good boards, bad boards and goddamn ugly ones. Unlike the Golden Eagle – of which there is only one type – there are as many variants of the Trustee Boards as there are birds in the sky.
I have decided to focus my piece on the very simple question of `What makes for a successful board of Trustees?’.. And I boil this down to five things.
1. It is Non Executive. By this I don’t mean it doesn’t `do things’ but it leaves the running of the organisation day to day to the CEO and senior team. Its focus is on strategy (Are we set up to the right things?), performance (Are we doing these thing well?) and probity (Are we making proper use of the resources at our disposal?). Before it does anything else, a Board needs to do the above properly. Too many boards blur the line. Too many boards sweat the small stuff and leave the bigger questions unanswered.
2. The Chair is in charge. Third sector boards tend to be full of passionate people who like to talk and are full of ideas. They are also full of differences of view and contain competing swirls and eddies of opinion. The Chair brings all this together for the benefit of the staff employed to run the organisation. The CEO needs to know, once all the debate is done, what the Board wants delivered. A strong Chair will do this. A weak Chair won’t protect the CEO enough and she ends up being buffeted by a board that doesn’t speak with a single voice.
3. It is professionalized. Most people on boards join without a lot of previous experience of governance. They believe all sorts of things about their role. Seldom is there a role-description. Training? Induction? Appraisal? You’ll be lucky. This is wrong, just as it is wrong to neglect these for employees. You want a high perfoming Board, you need the same kind of inputs you give to a senior team. They do all of this at Impetus Trust, which has been my best Trustee experience to date.
4. Information for the Board is first class. Trustees are responsible in law for an organisation. Therefore the quality of reports needs to be strong. In order to do their job well, the CEO and senior team have to give robust financial, operational, sales and HR data to trustees at least once a quarter. Further to this, they must also explain `risk’ – where it is, what can be done to mitigate it – both in these immediate areas and strategically for the longer term. Trustees depend hugely on this information to do their jobs well.
5. The Chair/CEO relationship. A chestnut I know but the heart of any effective organisation is a smooth interface between Governance and Delivery. Where there is respect, trust and an understanding of each others’ roles. A good Chair will understand the CEOs role in developing strategy and a good CEO will respect the sovereignty of the Board in the choice of strategy for the organisation. I have witnessed these relationships at their best and worst. A charity can withstand a toxic situation – but never for long. Indeed it is one of the biggest risks to the success of the mission and needs, therefore, to be reviewed regularly by a third party on the board.
I hope this offers some insight from my 15 years with Boards. Although the Trusteeship model often frustrates me it is also a huge resource, it keeps us all honest and, more broadly, enriches our civil society. Long-term we need, I believe, to up the game of boards. I long for Paid Trustees – really strong professional trustees – who, like first class private sector Non Execs – are brought in to show the level to which volunteers need to aspire – but, sadly, we are a million miles away from that right now. I also have worries long-term about what the conservatism of Boards might do to the responsiveness of our sector to the massive opportunities in the 2010s and 2020s for an ambitious and energetic response to the breakdown of the big state.
But that is another blog for another time….