Wednesday, 26 October 2016

What would the National Trustees body do?

The national survey of trustees conducted by the Charity Futures programme, Third Sector, and nfpSynergy indicated strong support for a new national trustees body. It follows that we should consider what such a body should actually do. It should have clear aims and a distinct role not already covered by NCVO, ACEVO, or the Association of Chairs. NCVO already has a governance department, and ACEVO ran a governance review service: there is also the Governance Hub, which produces the Code of Good Governance, which includes input from a whole host of bodies.

Many sector commentators already complain that there are too many infrastructure bodies. Only with a very defined purpose, funding structure, and place in the conversation would a trustees body enjoy wides support. It is not jumping the gun to hypothesise what role such a body should take. Fully 25% of our respondents thought that “a national body supporting trustees” would be “very useful”, while another 36% thought it would be “useful”.

The question did not imagine what that support might consist of. Different respondents likely interpreted it in different ways, projecting their own ideas about infrastructure support onto the question. Such a body could do any number of things, and the questions we had posed just prior to the one concerning trustees bodies probably affected what respondents were thinking: they included online training, better general training, trustee handbooks, and a trustee e-newsletter or group. There was most supports, 82% positive responses, to the generic idea of “Better training for trustees”, which doesn’t get us far.

How would such training be delivered? Seminars, workshops, awaydays, off-line courses? Would we have online video lecture series, mentorship programs, a grand centre delivering cutting-edge governance literature? How much extra time are trustees willing to devote to self-improvement? Would it be useful to have more governance appraisal services, provided at an affordable rate? Would funders and philanthropists have a more contributory role? Can charity boards learn from the composition and practices of the private and public sectors? If such a body did spring into being, how would it communicate with the public what it was trying to do, and assess whether it bolstered third sector leadership?

All of the ideas above feel worthwhile but uninspiring. A few hours of tuition or a quickly forgotten best practice document won’t have the impact we want. We need a body that is seen, unlike the Charity Commission, as a mentor, not a monitor. Perhaps there are many more innovations to come, or perhaps a carefully crafted mixture of the options above is the best that can be done.

The weighty challenge of governance demands joined-up big thinking. Marginal improvements and small scale initiatives on their own won’t be enough. They need to be set in this wider context, or small-fry thinking might become a habit. It would be a disaster if the mentality that can only justify minor interventions seeps into how foundations fund capacity. So the answer may well lie outside the sector and certainly may be about big philanthropy.

Trustee concerns reflect our sector’s broader problem themes. There remains a tendency to think too narrowly, e.g. contemplating governance simply as a question of trustees and processes, failing to recognise that it is as much to do with values and cultures – about how organisations are governed. That governing covers executive and staff behaviour, not just board meetings. Governance geeks, who just focus on the minutiae of process, are not only wrong; they are dangerous. They risk driving out the passionate spirit which (alongside professionalism) should be the sector’s hallmark. 

These are all issues that will need to be mulled over, indeed considered in great detail, before anyone dives ahead. But this work can be really valuable if we arrive at the right answer, or even as an answer that is mostly right. If we improve whole sector governance by a small margin in back-office, unsexy ways, this would translate into an imperceptible rise in quality of our whole sector’s operations. Intervening upstream to avert another Kids Company, pre-empt an Age UK or resolve a Terence Higgins Trust situation before it became an emergency: that would be a great boon to the sector. More, helping each board that had been merely muddling along, keeping their charity afloat, to really strive and explore how to deliver the very best: that is worth spending time to work out.

This is why, without any doubt, Charity Futures is now shaping up to be more than a two year journey - Woodford Investment and I are in this longer term. But perhaps our most important contribution – at least in the early years - will be to encourage others to join us in asking these questions and looking for answers. We will become clearer with time, and this gives us our best chance of delivering something meaningful.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Surveying the landscape: how do trustees feel?

For all the talk about charity leadership and governance, we actually know very little about what board volunteers think, what their training and backgrounds are, how they experience their roles. Past attempts to reinforce the quality of those guiding our sector have, in effect, been crafted half-blind. No wonder they have not always had the hoped-for impact.
That is why, with nfpSynergy and Third Sector magazine, Charity Futures has run the first comprehensive national trustees survey. We’ve been asking board members how confident they are in their own groups’ skills, what challenges they face, what support they receive and what are the best new ideas for support they’ll actually use.  By using social media, Third Sector’s readership and ACEVO’s member list, we’ve achieved a good snapshot of charities large and small, wealthy and modest, old and new.
Our results – together with choice commentary from yours truly - will be out next Wednesday. The survey promises to push the charity leadership conversation forwards and help us beef up the back office.
And on 22 November, we are holding a seminar with a range of sector experts on governance to help us digest these results and look at next steps. This is all part of our efforts to discuss widely with people and organisations to get their views on what an initiative in governance might look like and how it might work (and indeed who might fund it!) 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Speaking truth to power, part II

As I have blogged just recently, it is often said that one of the core duties of a charity is "to speak truth to power". It’s a phrase that originated with the Quakers in the 18th century. The charge that they were given to speak was threefold:
  • To those who hold high places in our national life and bear the terrible responsibility of making decisions for war or peace,
  • To the  people who are the final reservoir of power in this country and whose values and expectations set the limits for those who exercise authority,
  • To the idea of Power itself, and its impact on life.
There is an obvious link between the work of the Church and faith groups, and the work of charities in acting as the moral conscience of the country and a thorn in the side of the powerful on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.

Of course this sometimes means we are both attacked by Governments and politicians who argue we have no business playing politics. Former Archbishop Williams has talked of the "illiteracy" of many politicians about our role and this is but an example of that. If Christ turfed the money changers from the Temple, would the Churches not be failing in their duty if they did not point to the gap between the wealthiest in our society and the poorest? Is that not true for charities?

It is sometimes argued that charities should "stick to the knitting". In other words we should run soup kitchens or food banks for the poor but keep our mouths shut about the causes of poverty. Fortunately neither the Church nor charities will cease from these essential roles; both delivering services to vulnerable people and the most damaged communities and holding those in power to account. 
Cardinal Nichols' trenchant criticism of the effects on communities of welfare changes is a powerful example of the role Church leaders can play and one to be applauded. The work of churches of all denominations and other faiths is also a great example of community cohesion. Our Muslim communities have a strong and abiding charitable tradition that mirrors that of the Christian tradition. So the example being set by Archbishop Longley and other faith groups in Birmingham offering the Muslim community solidarity is another example of the role Churches can play in fostering stronger communities.

Historically the link between faith and charity is strong and continues to be binding. Charitable giving is one of the core duties of a Christian. From early times the Church has encouraged and supported charities. Indeed many of the earliest charities were run directly by the Church. One of ACEVO’s members, the CEO of St. John's Hospital in Bath, is running an institution set up by the monks and which, as they say, "through centuries of change (…) has remained true to its purpose. Founded in the 12th century it is still providing comfort in old age for those in need." Pope Innocent III in 1215 gave a letter of authorisation for the collection of alms, writing, "with works of great mercy and for the sake of things eternal so sow on earth what we should gather in heaven, The Lord returning it with increased fruit."

Many of our great national charities have their roots deep in the founding impetus of the Church; the children’s charities: Barnado’s, the Children’s Society and Action for Children are cases in point. One of the earliest hospices in the country, St Joseph’s in Hackney, was founded by the Sisters of the Poor. The work of the great international NGOs such as Caritas, Cafod and Christian Aid is sustained by the faithful and not simply through giving but through active support for their campaigning role; to mention just one example of that, "Make Poverty History".
So, at a time when the gap between the rich and the poor remains so large, we need a renewed sense of purpose between the Churches and charities in our common goal of giving voice to the voiceless. Similarly faith groups and charities continue their work in providing care and welfare services for those in need. Our role is growing as the State draws back from provision. Often this is because of an increasing understanding of the role of citizen and community focused charities, but also because the deep funding cuts demanded by austerity have eaten significantly into the safety net of our welfare state. That role will continue to grow and with it the much greater responsibilities that entailed. And as Archbishop Longley reminded ACEVO members in his speech to us, poverty encompasses so much more than just worldly goods. As he said, "poverty includes isolation, loneliness, fear in one's environment, being deprived of opportunities and lacking a voice". So we have that common purpose in delivering basic support and care as well as speaking out.

When the translators of the King James Bible were examining the Latin texts for the famous injunction of 1 Corinthians 13.13, there was much debate on the term "caritas". Modern translations use "love" but the King James scholars stuck to charity. Just a few years before they were deliberating, there was also debate on the role of charities which led to the great 1601 Statute of Elizabeth on Charitable Uses. I like to think they eschewed the use of "love" for charity as it is in charitable actions and approaches that we demonstrate the love we must have for one another and for God.
"And there abideth faith, hope, charity; these three, but the greatest of these is charity"

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Speaking truth to power - or whispering?

Our sector is supposed to pride itself on its ability to "speak truth to power" but frankly at the moment you would be hard pressed to see many examples of it.

I was proud to be part of the marvellous coalition of organisations that fought the Lobbying Act and made such a change to it. We also worked closely with our colleagues to fight the nonsense of the contract gagging clauses that still lurk around Rob Wilson's in tray. But the reality is that the real threat to the sector is our own self-censorship. 

In the big debates of the moment you would need to look hard to find the charity leaders’ voice. On Brexit for example we took a craven line in the referendum debate and now are failing to effectively challenge the rise of xenophobia and hate crime. There are honourable exceptions of course, and the organisations promoting the cause of migrants and refugees is a great one, but by and large we have failed to come together to promote the tolerance and inclusivity that our sector espouses. Where for example was the voice of the sector denouncing the appalling "foreigner employees" speech of Amber Rudd? 

Then we come to the horrendous crisis in our health and social care system. This strikes at the heart of where our sector has traditionally been active. Many, many third sector bodies are prominent in service delivery and advocacy. What is happening with the care of the frail elderly in hospitals around the country is scandalous. I have seen this at first hand with my father who has just spent over two months in hospital, where I have seen the strains on the system. 

Chris Hopson, who speaks for NHS providers, has been a great example of someone prepared to tell the truth publicly about the crisis. On Monday we had Jeremy Hunt on the radio denying there is a problem and insisting that the planned cuts – so-called efficiency savings – will go ahead. This is disastrous, and anyone who knows what is happening in A&E or in the care system realises the need for more resources. 

But where are the sector leaders in the media pointing out the crisis we face? Demanding action? There is a curious silence when we need a voice. Sometimes leaders think you work behind the scenes to get action and don't use the media. This is a wrong approach. 

The media is an essential ally and a great negotiating tool. The media is not a nasty thing you wheel out when all else has failed. Politicians respond when they feel there is public pressure and concern.  Thinking you can make change through discussion and meetings alone can be a flawed approach. A judicious use of media to give voice to genuine concern, to articulate what beneficiaries are experiencing and to demand action, is part of the process of getting action. Hopson has brilliantly shown how this is done by exploiting media on behalf of his NHS provider members whilst engaging seriously with them on solutions. Politicians and ministers, and therefore officials, respond when there is a crisis and you are there both demanding action publicly, and there to offer a solution. But they also need to fear you. A charity leader uses media to extract change because people trust us and listen to us and that is something many politicians don't have.
But there is a second and perhaps more fundamental reason why we need the media.  A charity is not there simply to deliver a service or act as an agent of the State.  Our beneficiaries want someone to champion them and articulate their concerns and demand change. They want to hear that. They want to see it.  We are not simply there to work behind the scenes, necessary though that is as well, but to speak truth to power in a way that reassures our beneficiaries that we are on the case. 

I'm afraid Theresa May is deeply unengaged in the current crisis and will not until she starts hearing us on Today or the front page of the Mail or top of the news. The NHS didn't do the pilots in A&E two years ago simply because I presented Government with a neat paper. They did it because they feared the damage a winter crisis could do. We have failed to capitalise on that. Never fall for the trap governments set when they tell you won't get anywhere if you go to the press. That secures compliance, not action. 

I'm reflecting what I am seeing in the media and also on 15 years of working with politicians and getting results. When the Blair government wanted to make a major policy impact on charities, Number 10 was able to ignore many sector leaders. Those that were consulted – myself included – were those whose public backing was vital to success, and whose public opposition in the press could have been a serious thorn in the side. A charity leader needs to be in a position where they are too dangerous to ignore, and they can provide answers to sort major problems.

Bob Kerslake, former chief of the Home Civil Service, was quoted in Civil Society last week, pointing to the power of the sector and to remember we are more powerful than politicians. He sums up my position brilliantly:

"You have to stand apart and have an independent voice, and in my experience in government they respect those who stand up and challenge even if they don’t like it. The worst thing you can be seen to do is cower in front of government because, eventually, they will get you.”