Meredith Niles, investment director at Impetus Trust, explains why governance can go wrong if trustees are too polite.
This week marks the annual celebration of Trustees’ Week, an effort led by the Charity Commission and other sector partners to encourage the public to think about charity trusteeship. A high-performing board is a key ingredient in the recipe for successfully scaling up social solutions, which is why a board and governance review is an essential part of the package that Impetus provides its investees.
For me, serving as a charity trustee is a no-brainer. It gives me an opportunity to support charities whose work I admire with my professional skills. My previous life analysing financial statements holds me in good stead on the finance sub-committees on which I serve. It gives me credibility and empathy when I am speaking to the boards of our investees about their governance, and I have an opportunity to share best practice in both directions.
I think it’s fantastic that the Charity Commission and others encourage the public to think about charity trusteeship each year with Trustees’ Week. But actually, I find myself thinking about trusteeship quite a bit even without an organised event to inspire me. I would estimate that over the past five years, I have easily spent 1,000 hours on charity board work, primarily as a participant – attending, preparing for, and following up after board and subcommittee meetings – but also as an observer, a facilitator and a trainer. In that time, I have had an opportunity to witness lots of practice – in most cases very good, but sometimes with room for improvement.
Where do things go wrong? In my opinion, it often comes down to trustees being too polite. Of course trustees are inherently nice people; they are, with rare exceptions, giving their time for free to causes about which they care passionately. However, an instinctive sense of decorum can, if left unchecked, get in the way of the board exercising its responsibilities effectively.
It is not rare to hear a charity executive lament the fact that a new trustee, recruited for his or her strong track record of driving corporate performance, seems to have parked that hard-charging attitude at the door. While this might make for nice, sociable meetings, no one – not least the charity’s service users – benefits from unfairly low expectations of the executive team. Trustees should not be afraid to ask tough questions and play the role of critical friend.
Nor should they be unwilling to challenge themselves. Just because trustees are volunteers doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have high expectations for their performance. The problem of trustees consistently missing meetings, not contributing constructively, or otherwise not pulling their own weight may be widely recognised – frankly, even by the culprits themselves – but no one feels comfortable being the one to say something, so the behaviour continues.
The problem of boards getting too cosy with the executive team and with each other is hardly unique, either among charities or, indeed, with corporate boards, And, I admit from personal experience, that it can often be seductively easy just to “go with the flow.”
So what is the solution? Institutionalise best practice.
- Exercise open recruitment to ensure trustees are selected for what they bring to the table, not just because they have an existing relationship with someone in the organisation.
- Set clear expectations for trustees at the outset and have processes in place (possibly a standing Governance committee or formal annual review process) to monitor performance. That way, conversations about performance are de-personalised.
- Be transparent about terms of service and have honest and open conversations about when it’s time to move on. You’d be surprised how many long-serving trustees would be grateful for the opportunity to leave gracefully but feel too obligated to the organisation to suggest doing so, while at the same time, no one else feels confident to bring up the subject of retirement out of fear of hurt feelings.
- Most importantly, keep in mind the objectives the charity has agreed and make sure they are being delivered. If a board is really finding it difficult to provide sufficient critique, you can even think about appointing someone to play the role of challenger in the meeting until it comes more naturally to everyone.
Practice makes perfect. Fellow trustees, let’s collectively commit to parking our politeness and putting performance first.
Meredith Niles is an investment director at Impetus. She also serves as honorary treasurer of Booktrust and as a trustee of Toynbee Hall and of Hestia Housing and Support.