Cass Business School has teamed up with the Charity Commission, the Cranfield Trust and NCVO to plan an ambitious public-facing campaign aimed at improving trustees’ awareness of their role and responsibilities.
Through their work with small and medium-sized charities, Cranfield Trust and Cass have had concerns for years that too many trustees simply don’t understand their legal duties and obligations. This not only leaves them personally exposed to potential liabilities, but means that their charities suffer from less-than-optimum performance.
After the Kids Company scandal propelled the subject of charity governance into the spotlight, the two organisations initiated discussions with the Charity Commission about doing some research to establish the scale of the problem.
They obtained some seed funding from the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants to kick-start the project and have now succeeded in persuading the Office for Civil Society to fund two separate studies to determine a baseline of trustees’ awareness of their duties and obligations. Both studies will be led by Professor Stephen Lee of Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.
The first will be an analysis of Charity Commission trustee data, exploring elements such as demographics, geographical locations, registration patterns, the socio-economic profile of trustees, and themes in the Commission’s casework.
The second study will be a survey of at least 5,000 individual trustees, to establish how much they understood about the requirements of their role when they first joined a charity board, and how much they feel they’ve learned since. This will be complemented by focus groups of Charity Commission staff and a survey of senior charity executives, to establish the perceptions of both these groups of the competencies of trustees.
Professor Lee also plans to develop a series of detailed case studies of effective and ineffective individual trustee practice.
Both pieces of research will be structured as longitudinal studies so changes can be tracked over time.
A third research project will be led by NCVO, and aims to compile a comprehensive list of all guidance and support currently available to trustees, and what the take-up is of each of these.
All of these reports will be combined into an overarching public policy report summarising the current state of trusteeship and recommending ways of advancing it in the future. This is expected to be completed around Easter next year, and will be made freely available to all who wish to read it and use the information gleaned from the research.
Public campaign targeting trustees
The results of the above studies will be used to inform a substantial public-facing campaign that aims to reach those trustees who don’t currently think of themselves as part of ‘the sector’. The campaign, which will enlist the help of marketing experts, has two primary aims: that every trustee will have a full and clear understanding of their duties and responsibilities, and that every trustee knows where to find advice and information to support them in their role.
Two subsidiary aims are that sources of advice and information are identified, and that being a trustee is a sought-after role.
Amanda Tincknell, chief executive of the Cranfield Trust, said there was broad support from across the sector, including Reach Volunteering, the Association of Chairs, and various professional advisers, for the campaign, and the intention is that it is a very collaborative initiative.
But the project team had accepted that it would need “some serious campaigning expertise from people who have done this sort of campaign before”. And for this it would need significant funding, though she declined to put a figure on the target.
“If we are able to go ahead it will be no small venture,” Tincknell said. “We are just starting to pull together a group of people, which will include people from the PR and comms world, who have planned campaigns.
“We would be delighted to get the support of trusts and foundations, and of government. And we’ll be doing everything we can to be as clever as possible, using as much help ‘in kind’ as we can possibly get.”
She said an important – and unusual - aspect of the campaign would be its focus on individuals, rather than boards.
“We are very much thinking about reaching people who don’t see themselves as part of ‘the sector’,” she said. “A lot of trustees are very engaged and very good at picking up information and attending events but our premise is that there are a lot who aren’t, and it’s them we really need to reach.
“That’s why we need to find some more public, everyday channels that people are tuning into when they’re not thinking about their charity work.”
The research by Professor Lee will begin next month, and funding for the campaign will be sought in parallel. Tincknell added: “It is an ambitious project but as someone said in one of our meetings: ‘If people are playing football and they’re on the pitch, they’ve got to understand the rules of the game’.
“It’s a very good analogy. You can’t expect people to be a great team and operating fabulous governance, if nobody has told them the rules they need to work to.”
More information on this and other projects to improve transparency is available here.