18 Sep 2014
Chairman's Corner: Beneficiaries on board: are we fit for purpose?
A trustee questions if their board is fit for the purposes of running a multi-million pound charity which is in major financial difficulties. Is there any way of getting the charity out of this mess?
We are a multi-million pound charity. The majority of our trustees are beneficiaries or, parents or carers of beneficiaries and are elected by our membership. We have three co-opted trustees which includes the chair. Trustee meetings last all day because of the special needs of our beneficiaries. Decision-making is painfully slow. As a result, co-opted trustees are often absent and eventually drift away completely. Board committees bring in additional skills by allowing non-trustees to serve.
For the last few years the charity has been going through a difficult time financially. Our chief executive does not seem to be able to get expenditure under control and he is unable, it appears, to stay within approved budgeted expenditure. When finance is discussed, the elected trustees do not really know how to hold the chief executive to account. The elected trustees do not understand finance or the commercial realities of running a multi-million pound charitable business. As beneficiaries and carers, they do not want to see services cut; everything is seen as essential. In the meantime we slide into greater and greater debt. We are selling a property to bridge the gap and it is not a good time to sell. I do not think the board is fit for the purposes of running a multi-million pound charity which is in major financial difficulties. Is there any way of getting the charity out of this mess?
A co-opted trustee who passionately believes in the work of the charity
Dear co-opted trustee
I am the CEO of a large disability charity and more than 85 per cent of our trustees, including the chair, vice-chair and treasurer, are beneficiaries. However trustees are elected to the board, not because they are beneficiaries, but because they have the skills and experience to carry out the role in a proper manner. If our trustees happen to be beneficiaries then that is a bonus - but no one is elected simply because they use services. Because of the skills and qualifications of my trustees our board meetings run professionally, are rigorous and are appropriately challenging of the senior staff.
My chairman's view of the situation was unequivocal. He said, "If beneficiaries on the board cannot cut the mustard it is not inclusion but tokenism," and I absolutely agree. There is a huge difference between working hard to ensure that the views of beneficiaries are heard (including making reasonable adjustments so that board meetings are accessible) and undermining the future viability and existence of the charity through adhering to a mantra of inclusion at any cost.
In our sector there are fantastic examples of user engagement techniques. These ensure that board decisions are informed by the opinions of beneficiaries but do not necessarily require beneficiaries to be trustees. There are also ways to ensure that beneficiaries or carers who do have the right skills are put forward for election to the board and a combination of these methods would solve this problem.
Finally if you think the charity really is at risk because board members do not have relevant skills you have a duty to do something about it! As with any board - charity or PLC - the ability of trustees or directors to make sound decisions is crucial. You must find the courage to speak out if your fellow trustees are not able to make decisions that are in the best long-term interests of service-users. If you do not the collapse of the charity will be far more damaging for beneficiaries!
chair of Acevo
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