What makes a good trustee?

How can we be good trustees?

I was asked to speak at an AGM earlier this year about good governance so I started by identifying what good practice says about governance. The latest edition of the Good Trustee Guide; the bible for voluntary sector governance, outlines twelve essential board responsibilities which include:

  • Set and maintain vision, mission and values
  • Develop strategy
  • Ensure accountability
  • Ensure compliance with the law

An important issue for boards is that trustees, on average, have about eighteen hours of governance time over the course of the year based on quarterly board meeting and three ad-hoc sub-groups. Many charities are facing specific financial challenges that require boards to take difficult decisions in a considered, informed but timely manner. This requires a majority of people on the board, whatever their background, who can understand and process complex information, assess risks in relation to doing something but also assess the risk of doing nothing. We need people on the board who understand some of the current developments going on in the sector and issues surrounding restructure for example.

Given this, the average person considering trusteeship might justifiably be anxious and feel intimidated by taking on these responsibilities. In fact, most people, however professionally skilled, will be put off.

So, here’s some context that may alleviate fears and encourage people to consider and take on trusteeship.

Is it realistically possible that trustees who come in for quarterly meetings can have the kind of oversight that the 12 board responsibilities imply? At the NCVO Trustee conference in 2016, I heard Philip Kirkpatrick from Bates, Wells and Braithwaite, speak about governance in the context of all the publicity about Kids Company and the scandal around fundraising. He said an interesting thing that stuck with me. He said that in his view it was impossible for trustees to have more than a `helicopter’ view of what goes on in the charity. Philip felt that the characteristics of trustees are possibly more important than other factors when considering governance. He identified that important characteristics for trustees is that they are curious, interested, critical and can apply judgement. I wonder how many of us recruit trustees on this basis?

So for me, as someone who is a chief executive, but has also been a trustee, these five things are the most important for trustees in their role:

  1. Be interested and curious about the charity’s work and its new developments. Read the papers beforehand so that you can make meaningful and informed contributions at the meetings.
  2. Make sure that the largest part of your meeting is about strategy, not operations. That’s why you have a chief executive/manager/staff. Your staff can give you an operational report, but assume everyone’s read it and it’s for information only. Your CEO’s life is in the operational space, where they get to talk about ideas and strategy is with you.
  3. Be focused on your mission – this sounds vague but it means very specific things – are you expanding into areas that take resources away from your objectives? What are the risks? What are the benefits? Are you collaborating effectively to get the best possible service for your service users?
  4. Supporting your CEO to move forward –in situations where the organisation faces significant challenges like loss of funding, while it’s good to have a collective moan about it, the role of a good trustee board is to move the conversation on and think about what next? It’s not to allow you all to stay in a negative place. That’s not helpful. As trustees, the most useful thing you can do when things go wrong is sympathise, sure, but actually, work collectively to mitigate and move forward.
  5. Create the conditions that allow trust between you and the CEO – you’re a team, you should be working together on running the charity. In most circumstances, the CEO knows much more than you about the charity, and has sound reasons for recommending the things they do. Your job as trustees is to test their assumptions, challenge their ideas, but in a helpful way.

I’ve been a charity trustee for five different charities over the course of my career, and found it the most useful and rewarding way to contribute my skills as a volunteer. Watching the charity you manage go through and navigate the challenges of the world we live in, while holding the interests of beneficiaries close to your heart, is the real definition of committed community activation and engagement. We should embrace the opportunity that trusteeship offers to make a real and substantial difference to our communities.

Sakthi Suriyaprakasam - Chief Executive, BVSC