Last week the Charity Commission published the findings of a survey of over 2,000 trustees, which enabled it to claim that 97% of trustees are confident in their roles.
The immediate reaction when I tweeted the story was one of eyerolling, with more than one person suggesting that charity staff may have a slightly different view.
So earlier this week Civil Society News set up our own poll to see what charity staff think about their trustees.
Huge caveats that this is a simple, unscientific, poll of our readers and we had 101 responses. It should not be compared with serious research, but the findings do offer some interesting insights.
When asked to rate the level of confidence they had in trustees on a scale of one to five (with five being very confident), the most popular response, at 34%, was to give them a three.
Our respondents seemed fairly confident that trustees would identify and prevent wrongdoing at their charity, but, worryingly a significant minority were not.
When asked what areas trustee boards could work, just 4% said their board had no areas it needed to improve.
Respondents were able to select as many responses as applied, and the most popular option was the need to improve diversity on the board, with 70% saying this is an area to improve. This was followed by “better engagement with staff and volunteers” (56%) and improving technical skills (33%).
Other improvements, suggested by respondents, included better understanding what the charity does and challenging senior management more.
Frustrations with trustees
We also asked respondents for any other comments they had and many chose to share details of their frustrations.
Concern about the lack of diversity at trustee level was a key theme.
One person said: “The diversity issue is massive. Our trustees are lovely but, like many advantaged people, have little awareness of the issues that others face. They are minimally awake to their own entitlement or any unconscious bias they may exhibit and the effect it may have on their decision-making. Our CEO is not strong enough to enforce change in this area.”
A different respondent said: “Trustees are usually middle class, white and male which isn't representative of the people we serve. Little effort is being made to diversify that, with new trustees consisting of friends of previous trustees. The eligibility is so stringent that it makes it hard for more diversity to get in.”
Others wanted their boards to do more to hold senior management to account.
One said: “They should read their board papers and seek clarification if unsure of content instead of looking like a collection of nodding dogs.”
The final theme was of staff feeling disconnected from trustees.
One said: “Other than our chairman, our trustees are pretty much a mystery. Our CEO seems to enjoy full autonomy and is able to make decisions affecting working conditions on a whim. Transparency and accountability feel very limited.”
Another said trustees are “far removed from the coal face and sit in ivory towers only questioning areas that they feel confident with and not pertinent. Emotional detachment impersonal no join up with staff”.
A third said: “Trustees are put on a pedestal that staff are not allowed to touch - how can they understand what we are achieving and any issues when they only get top management’s feedback? Their contribution is held in higher esteem than those on the ground.”