A charity chair's checklist

13 Sep 2021 In-depth

Neil Morrick’s guide to the key actions that chairs should take is based on input from experienced board leaders and can be used by all sizes of organisation.

After many years serving on the boards of large and small charities, I devised the following checklist to help chairs to maximise their effectiveness. The contents are comprehensive but are not claimed to be complete or conclusive. Please share this checklist widely and feed back on its usefulness to me at [email protected], in order to continue its constant development for all.

1. Chair – priorities

  • Agree a role description with your board and chief executive and review annually.
  • Remember that you are the chair of the charity as well as the board and communicate the board’s role.
  • Develop a clear, shared vision and strategy and review annually.
  • Set the tone and style of all contact with management.
  • Draw out the skills and talents of fellow trustees.
  • Act as a sounding board for colleagues.
  • Establish that there are sufficient and suitable reserves, resources, policies and procedures.
  • Behave as champion for the business plan by knowing your market and sector.
  • Understand and uphold your constitution.
  • Be alert to potential HR and legal issues.
  • Ensure that decisions are implemented by management.
  • Enable progress to be monitored and benchmarked.

2. Chief executive – relationship

  • Establish a clear division of responsibilities between your role description and the chief executive’s job specification.
  • Be prepared to act as a critical friend and support professional development.
  • Schedule regular one-to-one meetings and develop a mutual action plan.
  • Agree the board reporting format and nature of attendance.
  • Mutually identify major issues and methods for resolving them.
  • Learn how to handle disagreements and deal with them as they arise by accentuating positives.
  • Ensure that the sharing of views is a proper two-way process.
  • When carrying out annual appraisals, incorporate trustees’ views and aim for the ball, not the player.
  • Arrange to attend occasional management meetings by agreement.
  • Encourage presentations on key topics to the board.

3. Board – development

  • Establish the appropriate number of trustees and potential future roles.
  • Carry out an inventory of skills and identify missing needs.
  • When recruiting, besides the national voluntary organisations, consider approaching local employers and outplacement companies.
  • Prepare an induction programme, supervise it personally and gain initial and ongoing feedback from new trustees.
  • Recognise commitment from colleagues and find ways to motivate “non-players” by asking them to take on relevant projects, or organise their replacement.
  • Carry out an annual review of board performance (possibly in conjunction with the AGM).
  • Build understanding between trustees and management by encouraging planned visits.
  • Plan succession for board roles, especially the appointment of a vice-chair with an agreed role description as your deputy and potential replacement.
  • Consider setting up sub-groups to cover finance/funding, people/operations and communications/marketing – if there are not enough trustees, then find a “champion” for each area.
  • Encourage representative trustees for relevant related organisations to add value and contacts through their connections.
  • In large boards, an executive group can improve decision-making – but they must report back to all trustees.

4. Meetings – organisation

  • Types of meetings – be clear. Are they general, trustees’ or special meetings?
  • Know your constitution: What is the quorum? What percentage of voting is required? Do you have a casting vote? Is consent from third parties required?
  • Consider how often meetings are required.
  • Who sets the agenda? It should be led by you in conjunction with others, primarily the chief executive.
  • Consider the length, day of the week and time of meetings – what suits the majority?
  • Set meeting dates (where possible) at the start of each year to enable high levels of attendance.
  • The agenda and supporting materials should be circulated not less than one week in advance of meeting.
  • Consider prioritising and timing agenda items – more pressing issues and/or decision items should be considered first with discussion or update items second.
  • Minutes are a critical record and drafts should be circulated within one week. Who is present, absent or in attendance? There should be a summary of the discussion and a record of the decisions. An approved version should be signed by the chair.
  • Include one major topic for review at each meeting or arrange an annual off-site awayday.

5. Legal – knowledge

  • Know and understand the legal duties, responsibilities and liabilities of trustees.
  • Understand the standards of skill and care and their relevance to your board.
  • Ensure that trustees understand that they share collective responsibility and are bound by decisions of the board, regardless of how they voted individually or whether they were present.
  • When appointing trustees, ensure they are asked to complete and sign a declaration of willingness and eligibility to act.
  • Understand the role of the Charity Commission and its remit (and those of other regulators, where relevant).
  • Remember that trustees can delegate authority but not responsibility.
  • Consider including length of service in trustee role description.

6. Governance – detail

  • Know your governing document. Is it still relevant? Key provisions: – Objects – Powers – Meetings – Decision-making – Delegation
  • Remember that induction of new trustees and ongoing training of existing trustees is a requirement under the SORP (Statement of Recommended Practice)
  • Don’t assume knowledge. Focus on improving yourself and the group.
  • Get your policies and procedures right, then use and follow them. They are your back-up and ensure consistency in your dealings with others.
  • Delivery of paid services by your charity may carry an expectation or possibly an assessment of good governance – how confident are you of demonstrating that?
  • Make good governance the norm throughout your charity, with good practices seen to be followed by all.

7. Planning – strategy

  • Consider who should take the lead on planning – you, the board or the chief executive?
  • How will you tackle it? Will information and guidance from the chief executive be scrutinised and finalised by the board?
  • Trustees should be free to challenge and robustly discuss planning issues with the CEO for an added layer of scrutiny, rather than settling for blind reliance.
  • Trustees set the strategic direction of your charity, so you should encourage and lead them to think strategically. Are the board considering the right things now? Are they looking to the future adequately?
  • Prioritise issues according to their importance and risk, and add them to agenda items accordingly.
  • Evaluate and assess your charity. How can it be improved?
  • Constantly look for opportunities. Consider and evaluate them carefully.
  • Ensure budgets are realistic and constantly monitored against results.
  • 8. Procedures – mechanisms

  • The starting point is your constitution. What additional layers of policies and procedures does your charity need?
  • Evaluate existing procedures. Do they work? Are they right? Are they robust enough?
  • Delegation – strive for clear delegation, in writing, setting out the remit, scope and any decision–making powers, not forgetting reporting-back requirements.
  • Periodically review all policies and procedures to ensure they are up to date. This is particularly relevant for employment and HR matters.
  • Procedures are there to be followed – otherwise they should be updated or removed, not ignored.
  • Maintain a risk register and keep it up to date.

9. Change – control

  • Decide whether issues are strategic or tactical – the first is for the board and the second for management.
  • Develop a survival strategy by producing a contingency plan based on “what ifs”.
  • Produce a marketing plan and funders’ perspective to underpin your business plan.
  • Ensure the board and management understand the dynamics of the sector in which you operate.
  • If using SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) techniques, ensure conclusions are drawn and implemented.
  • Use an action planning approach, ensuring plans are constantly updated and avoid unnecessary agendas, minutes, memos and letters.
  • Check service levels even for free delivery and listen to users.
  • Gain staff commitment through clear and frequent communication, and never underestimate resistance to change.
  • When making major changes, ensure that all benefits have been achieved.
  • Consider introducing KPIs (key performance indicators) for make-or-break activities and using a dashboard.

10. Leadership – motivation

  • Believe in the ethos of your charity and make it the focus of your efforts.
  • Recognise the tensions between charitable objectives and commercial requirements – and balance the outcomes.
  • Develop a communications policy with trustees and management that reflects your charity’s values.
  • Create a deliverable succession plan for all key participants.
  • In agreement with the chief executive, spend time with team members and volunteers.
  • Ensure that all stakeholders are heard and remember that the majority will be volunteers.
  • Think laterally in terms of collaboration or joint ventures with like-minded organisations.
  • You are the ambassador for your charity – you’ll always add value if you have a succinct factual summary of the benefits your charity gives to the community along with key milestones and deliver it to the right audiences.

Neil Morrick is an experienced charity chair and adviser

*Legal and governance contributions from Catherine Rustomji. Charity Chairs Checklist (c) 2021 Neil Morrick  

For more news, interviews, opinion and analysis about charities and the voluntary sector, sign up to receive the Civil Society News daily bulletin here.


More on