The role of trustees in a charity and the effective actions they can take

Charity Governance

Trustees in a charity – Verita and Saxton Bampfylde executive summary

The important role of trustees in a charity are explored. Being tenacious is key to successful governance.

The issues of confidence, complacency, and challenge were common themes during a wide-ranging discussion with leading trustees and audit chairs on their role in a charity on Monday 15 May hosted by recruitment specialists Saxton Bampfylde and governance experts Verita.  Attendees had early sight of recent survey findings on charity governance confidence in the sector and then discussed a wide range of topics and themes based on relevant case studies.

The main survey findings and discussion points are summarised below.

 

Main findings from the survey

  • 100% clear on your responsibilities
  • 85% confident that meeting all relevant duties and regulation
  • 75% believe governance is very robust
  • Over 60% could absolutely publicly demonstrate charity is well run
  • 85% feel it’s very or fairly easy to keep up with relevant information
  • No concerns regarding safeguarding and complaints procedures
  • The biggest impact of recent scandals will be more scrutiny, regulation, and loss of donations
  • Biggest concerns: more regulation, reputation, and perception
  • Why? Because you believe in the cause…

 

Charity reputation management

Drawing on the recent example of Oxfam and other case studies, there was a discussion on the most effective ways that good charity governance and robust trustee challenge can assist in reputation management.

Situations which can damage reputation should be dealt with using an open and transparent nature. With changing cultural norms and social media, whistleblowing and raising concerns is easier and more public than ever before. The risk of exposure is higher and organisations should have no doubt that any ‘dark secrets’ will be brought to the light.

Trustees were clear on their role that it is best to be upfront, apologise and acknowledge issues, and should help the organisation resist the temptation to deny allegations which have not been fully reviewed. There was recognition that whilst it is difficult to publicly and proactively acknowledge failure (for example, the removal of a senior figure for wrongdoing), the short-term pain of this brave approach will have longer-term gains in demonstrating the organisation and leadership act according to your values.

Much of the recent Oxfam charity scandal had its roots in historical events which would have preceded many trustee appointments on its current board. Trustees discussed what their role would be in a similar situation. Suggestions included questioning any gaps or anomalies in the charities history and making sure corporate memory does not leave with individuals, with all decisions properly recorded.

role of trustees in a charity

 

Weak signals

Based on previous Verita investigations, the role of trustees being sensitive to ‘weak signals’ of corporate failure was highlighted as being important in a charity.

These weak signals can identify important issues. What is the role of trustees in a charity in responding to these ‘blips on the radar’?

Transparent reporting, monitoring of complaints and whistle-blowing were all mentioned.

Important questions were raised about how best to translate these signals. For example:

  • do these signals reoccur;
  • can they be attributed to one area, service or team;
  • and are issues being treated as individual cases, or looked at over time?

The role of trustees in supporting a ‘speak up’ culture came through strongly.

Trustees were realistic in recognising they cannot know every detail about their charity. They were also concerned that request for more assurance added additional administrative burdens onto busy teams. However, strong governance and systems reduce risks to the charity. It is important that trustees are tenacious and courageous in asking uncomfortable questions of the executives.

 

Relationships

Drawing on recent examples and case studies, the relationship between the chair and chief executive was examined. This relationship is vitally important to a well-run organisation. and needs to be one of comradeship, but not friendship. How can trustees help make sure the right balance of challenge and support is struck?

In the discussion, trustees agreed they should set the chief executive objectives and review every six months. Chairs need to be rigorous in holding the chief executive to account, whilst recognising any distracting external and internal issues that may have arisen during that period.

Trustees need to be clear when this relationship is not working when the challenge is lacking and or it feels ‘too cosy’. It may need discussions without the chair present to articulate trustee concerns and how they want it addressed.

 

Volunteers

Volunteers provide a significant amount of time, dedication, and support to charities. In many cases, volunteers are necessary for a charity to function.

Trustees said volunteers offer support but in turn, need to be supported themselves. Because they are committed and offer support for free, there is sometimes a lack of scrutiny and management of their activities. Operating on the ‘shop floor’, volunteers need to be able to raise any governance or safeguarding concerns rapidly through the organisation. Likewise, as Verita brought to life with a relevant case study, boards must have oversight of any potential concerns about the actions of volunteers.

Based on experience, Verita recommended that a trustee should be delegated board-responsibility for volunteers, including policies around recruitment, training, and purpose of their role. Management of volunteers was essential, as were volunteers being clear on all relevant policies, escalation, and whistleblowing. Staff and volunteer surveys were also considered useful for monitoring positives and negatives and highlighting any concerns early.

Strong management of volunteers means they feel better valued, time is better used and they are making a clear difference.

It also felt important to explain to service users the role and remit of volunteers, as they are often in direct contact with vulnerable individuals.

Strong governance protects both charities and volunteers.

 

In summary, Verita’s experience shows…

  • Use complaints as an asset
  • Act on weak signals
  • Be prepared to ask the difficult questions
  • Be inquisitive
  • Sunlight is the best disinfectant

This toolkit aims to help the board of trustees understand their role in a charity and meet best governance practice by setting out six key benchmarks for good governance.

 

If you would like to learn more about the role of trustees in a charity then please book a free consultation or contact Ed Marsden on 020 7494 5670 or [email protected].

 

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