"Effective challenge" is the most important ingredient that trustees can bring to their role, and charities should invest in making sure their board members can provide this, charity lawyer Philip Kirkpatrick said yesterday.
Kirkpatrick (pictured), a partner at Bates Wells Braithwaite, delivered a State of the Sector address at the NCVO/BWB Trustee Conference in London.
He summarised the problems in fundraising that have dogged the sector in recent months, and reflected on the collapse of Kids Company. But he concluded that it was the actions of a few rogue staff within professional fundraising agencies that had brought the sector into disrepute, and the "unedifying spectacle" of Kids Company was a unique and extraordinary case that was not representative of charities in general.
"Most fundraising is good fundraising," he said, "and there is no general malaise in the sector."
However, there is no doubt that such stories do risk damaging the high levels of public trust and confidence that charities have traditionally enjoyed, and so it is up to trustees to do all they can to ensure their organisations are well run.
Kirkpatrick said it was impossible for trustees, who might engage directly with their charities less than once a month, to genuinely be responsible for setting the tone, culture and values of the organisation.
"Ultimately, it is the trustees who are responsible for everything the charity does," he said. "Is that fair and reasonable? No, of course it's not. The best we can do as trustees is to take a helicopter view and try to make sure that proper systems and processes are in place."
He said one solution might be to professionalise - to have fully paid boards and to run charities as if they are for-profit businesses. But he didn't think the public would approve of that.
"I don't think the answers are structural," he said. "I think the answer lies in the personal qualities of trustees. And I recently asked a group of governance experts what the most important personal qualities of a trustee are, and they came up with some pretty good answers - they said conscientiousness, inquisitiveness, courage and judgement."
But trustees also need to be able to challenge effectively, and that is not something that comes naturally to everyone, he said.
"But it needs to be learned quickly," he said. "Effective challenge lies at the heart of good trusteeship. Your charity may need to provide some training in it. Why don't we invest as much in our trustees as we do in our staff? Maybe we need a new 'industry standard' - Investors in Trustees?
"Trustees have a very important role to play, and the sector should be investing more in us to ensure we are fulfilling our role better.
"But also we must take time to reflect, to learn lessons properly, and make sure we make effective rather than just immediate change."