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.
What would a National Trustees body do? Amongst much else, ensure that a volunteer trustee is never without protection and support. At present, a trustee who believes that he or she has been treated unfairly, perhaps because of whistle-blowing, could receive protection and support from the Charity Commission, the Attorney-General or his or her fellow trustees - but only if they decide to give it. Unlike employees/workers, volunteers have no statutory rights.
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