Charity Trustee Boards: Common Pitfalls

Society is increasingly dependent on the great work of many volunteers and charities. Within this context the role of the Charity Trustee has never been more important. Our studies have identified a small number of pitfalls that trustees can fall into, which in turn can threaten the very survival of a charity. How is your charity avoiding these?

  1. Understanding the job description is not enough

Almost all of the support available for trustees focuses on compliance and the defined roles and responsibilities of a trustee. But since when did understanding a job description ever guarantee excellent performance? We argue that as a leader, trustees must interpret the rules and guidelines to be appropriate to the size and complexity of their organisation. We also believe that the ‘unofficial’ role of a trustee must include both top-down and bottom-up support to staff. The role is not just about compliance, but also about coaching and mentoring staff to enable the charity to have the greatest possible impact on society.

  1. Strategy is not the preserve of Trustees

When it comes to the charity’s strategy we have often heard phrases such as ‘the trustees set strategy and the executive implement strategy’. We disagree. We believe strategic decisions are taken at every organisational level and as such trustees must fully engage with the charity’s staff when discussing future strategic direction.

  1. Risk – minimise risk or encourage risk taking?

The published guidelines on managing charity risk include ways to transfer, avoid or mitigate risk. Although these are valid approaches to risks such as fraud, safeguarding or safety, we believe some risk should be encouraged. After all, which organisation ever thrived by avoiding mistakes? Only by being prepared to take risks will a charity fulfil its potential. What will be your legacy at the end of your tenure as a trustee. Will you hand back a safe charity or a better charity?

  1. Team – are trustees part of a high performing team?

Trustees may go weeks without talking to each other and then have a packed agenda at the Board meeting. The temptation is to stay focused on the tasks, ensure the meeting runs to time and that all items are covered. In doing so, however, Boards are ignoring a critical aspect of trusteeship.  All decisions taken by the Board are collective. The Board should be a team and not a group of individuals.  In this context even the most out-going and motivated individuals can lack the confidence to fully contribute to proceedings. What a waste. Boards must allocate time to develop the board as a team and repeat the process whenever the composition of the Board changes.

If our charity sector is to thrive we must be honest about how some charities need to improve.   Let’s begin a dialogue.

Nigel Kippax