'Many small charity trustees don't know what they are supposed to be governing'

Tor Docherty

'Many small charity trustees don't know what they are supposed to be governing'5

Governance | Emily Corfe | 10 Feb 2016

Many trustees of small charities don't understand their legal responsibilities and just accept whatever the chief executive says, a charity leader told a Parliamentary group yesterday.

Tor Docherty (pictured), chief executive of LGBT charity, New Family Social, told the All Party Parliamentary Group on Charity and Volunteering that stricter consequences were needed for incompetent trustees.

“A lot of charity trustees are uncertain of what they are supposed to be governing,” she said. “I don’t think they understand the legal responsibilities that they have.

"A lot will either accept at face value what the chief executive tells them or at the other side of the scale, are so involved as to be essentially running the organisation.”

Docherty said that although trusteeship was a difficult job with “a lot to learn in terms of governance”, a concern for small charities was that “some boards can be told virtually anything” by the chief executive.

Docherty, who emphasised that she was not speaking about her current trustees, said there needed to be greater consequences for poor governance.

“If there are serious consequences for serious failings of governance, then people will perhaps look at their own role and say we need to do this properly and we need to scrutinise effectively,” she said.

But while Docherty called for tighter controlls of trusteeship, she also acknowledged that small charities faced difficulty when recruiting trustees.

“I have worked in a lot of organisations where the question has been ‘who on earth will join this board?’” she said. “There is sometimes a danger in advertising for trustees, that it can attract some people who want the power and status of a trusteeship without necessarily having the expertise or interpersonal skills to do it well. But there’s also a danger with word of mouth recruitment that we get people who look like us and sound like us and say the things we want to hear.”

‘Perfect storm’

Pauline Broomhead, chief executive of the Foundation for Social Improvement, told the APPG that small charities faced a “perfect storm”.

“We are not seeing any slow down in demand for services," she said. "While in the vast majority of cases, small charities are rising to the challenge and meeting demand, the key question has got to be how long can small charities continue before they are stretched too thin?"

Broomhead said the "magnitude and complexity of social and economic problems facing society" was growing against a backdrop in which both the public and government were "looking towards the charity sector to solve the issues that we face".

"The reality therefore for charity trustees is that they are now governing organisations that are dealing with and providing solutions to these complex problems to increasing numbers of people,” she said. 

Broomhead echoed Docherty’s comments that although “most trustees are good people wanting to do good things”, many “don’t realise the depth and importance of the role that they have to play in an organisation”.

“The vast majority of charities are doing no harm. But doing no harm is not always as good as doing things correctly. So we have to work with our trustees and give them more opportunities to get training and give them the opportunity to deselect themselves from trusteeship. I don’t know how we would do that because I can’t think of one small charity that doesn’t struggle to get trustees.”

The group also heard concerns that Prime Minister David Cameron's three-day paid volunteering programme could be a drain on resources for smaller charities. 

"While it is terrible to turn people away, you should not go into that relationship without being able to support it and it being beneficial to what you do. Otherwise it’s just a waste of your time," said Docherty.

The APPG also changed its name. It was previously the APPG on civil society and volunteering, and is now the APPG on charity and volunteering.

Catherine Demetriadi
11 Feb 2016

Trustees aren't supposed to be people who 'just meet a few times a year'. They should be passionately involved members of standing committes and act as mentors, networkers, fiduciaries, ambassadors, donors, advisers, lobbyists, and fund raisers.

In good part this weak-board situation has arisen because chaity execs don't want to suffer the indignity of being governed at all (forgetting that trustees are the true legal owners of their charities) and entice these 'nuisances' onto boards with promises that they DON'T have to meet, give, get, champion, advise, introduce, and mentor.

Chickens, roosts, reaping, sowing ...

Lucy Straker
11 Feb 2016

This is why the role of local infrastructure support is so vital. These organisations provide advice and guidance to charities and community groups on a range of topics including trustee training and governance - and in most cases this is free. Cut backs in local authority funding to infrastructure organisations has a real knock on effect to the voluntary sector especially smaller charities and community groups.

10 Feb 2016

I think Ms Docherty is dead on in her assessment. This was certainly my experience here in Canada, where I worked for two charities. Most trustees believed (or chose to believe) what the executive director told them. (And I won't get started on how personal agendas among certain trustees eroded meetings.) I saw another phenomenon: the poor preparation of trustees for their roles. For example, I saw new trustees jump ship after they learned more about their legal liability vis-à-vis the charity.

Julia Kaufmann
10 Feb 2016

It's not just in small charities that trustees simply take the word of the CEO - this happens in large charities too and also (as we have seen) in very large corporates. Isn't it time that we faced up to the fact that trustees, meeting for an average 6 times a year for a few hours (18 hours a year?) can't possibly do a thorough job of scrutiny, especially if they are not supposed to trust all that they are told and are discouraged from any so called 'interference'?

12 Feb 2016
Response to [Julia Kaufmann]

I have been a Trustee / non-Executive Director of small, medium and large organisations and, IN REALITY (not from a Charity Commission handbook or policy document) Julia's comments are accurate.

Execs generally don't like interference; Trustees generally don't like looking / feeling stupid / asking the same questions over and over.

Again, IN REALITY, Trustees should be allowed to rely on information provided to them from Execs in a Board Meeting context and the law should recognise this. If Trustees require more / different / corroborating information this can be asked for, noted down officially, duly received and further inquiry made as appropriate.

Anything more than this and you are in the realms of paying Trustees for their time (their role becomes a contract determining how much time they should spend on their duties rather than a matter of conscience) or, otherwise , you will simply be putting off large swathes of the general public from wanting to get involved.


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