10 challenges of creating an effective trustee board

4 July 2017
Author: Joe Saxton

Having a high-functioning group of trustees rarely happens by luck or accident - it is usually the result of large amounts of hard work. Here are some of the challenges I’ve encountered during my experience of chairing five charities.

1. Getting the right people

You need the right people on a board – not just because you want people with great skills, expertise or experience, but also because you need the right combination of personalities. It’s no good having a group of expert prima donnas who won’t sit and listen to each other. 

2. Using all their skills

I find using all of the skills and energy of trustees one of the hardest jobs of being a chair. Partly because some trustees need a bit of prodding to be useful, but also because it’s always important to respect volunteers who give their time for free (and so it shouldn’t be wasted or taken for granted).

3. Knowing where to go to for advice

Boards often need support and advice. The advice is certainly available from consultants, often law or accountancy firms. I am never quite sure this is right. Trustees should be driving a charity to make a difference, not just meet their legal or financial duties (important as they are). It’s great that we have an Association of Chairs, but we really need a support body for all trustees.

4. Getting the right balance between scrutiny and irritation

Part of the job of a trustee is to scrutinise: constantly probing, pushing and asking questions and not accepting poor answers or being fobbed off. However too much scrutiny as an individual trustee or as a board can get very tiring: staff can get fed up with answering endless questions, or discovering their answers aren’t good enough. So getting the balance right is key.

5. Understanding that the line between operations and governance is fluid

The mantra is that trustees do governance and staff do operations. This is easier in theory than practice. If a trustee thinks something isn’t going as well as it should be, then they will need to dig down into the detail pretty hard. If the charity is small then many trustees will do things that staff in larger organisations do. So each charity will need to agree what the red lines are, and realise they change with time and by issue.

6. Listening to multiple voices

There are all sorts of people who want to try and persuade trustees of what a charity should be doing: funders, volunteers, staff, clients, politicians, and more besides. Trustees need to decide which of these voices should be listened to when and decide which direction they want to go in when they have done all that listening.

7. Understanding trustees have many roles

There are many different roles that trustees can have: ambassador, scrutineer, free consultant, wise counsel, beneficiary champion, critical friend to name but a few. And many trustees will have more than one of those roles. Trustees need this kind of diversity just as they need diversity in background, experience, perspective and the like.

8. Getting trustees involved outside of board meetings

Being a trustee can be a very meeting orientated role, which is strange given how rude most people are about most of the meetings they go to!  So it’s important to get trustees involved outside of board meetings: visiting places, talking to staff, finding out how volunteers and clients feel, imparting their wisdom and so on. If you have the right trustees, their value can be greatly increased outside of the board meeting.

9. Working out how to monitor the health of the charity

I remember looking at one set of board papers which detailed expenditure on insurance, electricity and stationery, but showed nothing about how the charity was doing on the things it existed to do. Yes money is important, but measuring things which are indicative of success is more important. These could be website visitors, volunteer satisfaction, number of clients or members and many more. Make sure your charity monitors more than just money.

10. Even CEOs need managers

Often the talk about governance can make it feel like the relationship between a CEO and chair should be more “cerebral” or light-touch than normal management relationships. I don’t buy that. I have always done all the normal management activities of 360 reviews, appraisals and objectives for all the CEOs I have managed. Without that I don’t see how a CEO can be given the feedback and direction their role requires.

This blog is based on nfpSynergy’s report A Trusted Role, available for free on the nfpSynergy website.

About the author

Joe Saxton
nfpSynergy

Joe Saxton is driver of ideas and founder at nfpSynergy, a market research organisation for the non-profit sector.