Do trustees see themselves as leaders, or followers?
NCVO and Barclays provide a training programme to inspire leader in smaller voluntary and community sector organisations.
The Leadership Development Programme programme itself is generally attended by staff members but it got me thinking about the leadership and trustees – specifically, do trustees see themselves as leaders of their charities?
In my experience there is a direct correlation between trustees who do recognise the importance of leadership and the success of the charity.
I once worked with a small charity that provided childcare services. The trustees were all parents of children who attended the nursery and the membership changed every year as children left the nursery and their parents lost interest. The trustees were under the impression that they were on the board simply to fundraise. They thought that the board was a tickbox and if they did not 'volunteer' then their children would have no nursery – they had no knowledge or appreciation of their legal responsibilities.
The CEO was the accepted leader of the organisation, to the extent that the trustees were signing blank cheques at her request. The CEO had employed her two daughters and her husband drove the bus for the nursery - she was planning to retire in six months. Further investigation found that actually the finances of the organisation were quite healthy and there was no fraud on the part of the CEO, thankfully. However, it was a model of bad governance which was wide open for abuse and could have been so much worse.
In this case when I spoke to the CEO she admitted that she used to involve the board more in the running of the organisation but over a number of years and a number of bad boards she stopped ‘wasting her time’. She admitted that having a new board every year was very time consuming and she struggled to maintain good relationships.
I worked with the organisation to prepare for the recruitment of a new CEO, carried out an in-depth governance review, helped the charity implement new systems, policies, etc, trained the board on their responsibilities and coached board members to develop both their skills and their confidence. We developed a robust induction procedure where new board members were told exactly what their responsibilities would be and were trained to understand their roles. Ultimately they were made aware that their role was to lead the charity. The result was a board that could lead the charity, did set strategy and had healthy and open relationships internally and externally.
Relationships in our sector can be difficult but that in itself is not a bad thing. This passion, if managed, can provide healthy friction which challenges how we do things and makes us constantly justify what our charity is doing. This helps us to make sure that we are always providing services in the best interests of our beneficiaries. Trustees must question chief executives; that is their job as leaders of the organisation. They must be happy that the organisation is being governed effectively and efficiently.
The key to making sure that this passion does not become corrosive is to ensure that trustees and Chief Executives can and do act objectively as far as possible. This is helped by making sure that there are clear systems in place and that we keep the needs of our beneficiaries as the foundation of everything we do. If we do that then we can lead our charities to success, meet the needs of our beneficiaries and perhaps even have some fun along the way!
If you want to be a leader as a trustee why not register for NCVO’s Trustee Conference on 31 October. You will get to share your experiences, network with other trustees and attend workshops on a wide range of issues including how to deal with enforced change and manage risk as well as practical workshops on mergers, finance for trustees and dealing with difficult board members.
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Oonagh Smyth, Senior advisor, shares her advice on governance. Note: Oonagh no longer works for NCVO.