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Getting the right trustees is crucial to charities’ survival

Getting the right trustees is crucial to charities’ survival

Expert opinion

What do charity CEOs see as the most pressing challenges facing their organisations? If you work in the sector, the answer is unlikely to come as a huge surprise. Our Social Landscape 2017 report found that income generation was top of charity leaders’ concerns, with more than half (57%) citing it as one of their top three challenges. Reduced public or government funding was cited by 34%.

Charities face a tough task to achieve financial sustainability while demand for services is increasing. Reassuringly, chief executives are clearly up for the challenge. Four in five (80%) said they were collaborating and an even greater proportion (86%) were actively attempting to diversify their income and funding streams.

But are their boards of the same mind-set?

Across our work supporting charities to become resilient organisations, we hear a lot about these financial challenges in practice. Each and every time, getting the board right - in terms of membership and function – has a huge bearing on a charity’s ability to succeed.

A good board sets and maintains vision, mission and values, develops strategy, ensures accountability and promotes the organisation.

A great board does this with an awareness of the external environment, an evidence-based approach to decision-making, regard for others operating around them, and the ability to offer challenge as well as support to the senior team.

The priority a charity places on board development may be one of the most important factors in its ability to tackle the big issues highlighted by our report. They need to be confident that the right people are making the right decisions at the right times, and that they are focused on ensuring long-term impact on the charitable cause at hand.

So how does a charity get this right? Our work across charities of all sizes tells us that they need to be thinking about the following:

Recruitment: Plan the process and carry out a skills audit to understand the current skills and experience within your board. Have you got people who can do what’s needed with a diversity that’s broadly representative of the community, users and members your organisation serves? Can you say confidently that each board member can contribute to the key challenges you face as a charity, and will have the ideas or contacts to help solve them?

Putting together a role description and exploring a potential board member’s ability to operate as outlined above is a good start to knowing you’ve got who you need.

Induction: New trustees need to feel welcome and informed. Giving them some time to learn about the organisation and some key information will help them become a contributing and effective member of the board more quickly. A good induction is often one of the main factors behind charity trustees becoming engaged with the organisation and staying on. Continued engagement and information is crucial to getting the most benefit from trustees’ skills, expertise and networks.

Review: It is crucial to developing existing trustees and ensure you maximise their impact both as individuals and as a board. Effective boards I’ve worked with hold regular trustee reviews every six months and routinely ask each other “how well is the board working?” and “are the skills and experience of each trustee being used effectively?”  If the answer to this second question is yes, the charity is far more likely to be in a good position to generate and diversity its income.

Having a board functioning at the top of its game won’t bring back government funding or reduce the demand for services, but it will mean a charity is in the best place it can be to face the challenges of 2017 and beyond. 

Steph Taylor is Senior Advisory Manager at the Charities Aid Foundation.