Flawed boards

Is it time for charities to shake up their
leadership structures and introduce more professionalism to their
boards of trustees in light of modern demands from the state, asks
Anna Coote.

An irreverent colleague once remarked that the
governing boards of voluntary organisations come in four
categories: bar room, elevator, asylum and heaven’s gate.

The first is where like-minded people get
together to socialise and plot. It is found in the smaller, more
radical type of charity – a chaotic but creative body. The average
age of trustees is under 35 and they are in it for fun as well as
for the cause. They are erratic employers of staff with whom they
enjoy stormy but largely egalitarian relationships. They provide
energy and direction, working closely with the chief executive, who
tends to be one of their own kind. Love affairs and life-long
friendships are forged between and during meetings, not always to
the benefit of charity business.

The second is for high flyers. They are
talented, often rich and already well connected. They arrive in
taxis and leave early for a book launch or the opera. They have
access to ministers and provide intellectual ballast and
middle-aged glamour as well as routes to wealthy funders for the
organisation, which tends to be a middle to heavyweight charity
with a strong national profile. The average age is under 55.
Frantically busy, they have a short attention span and are
generally more interested in each other than in the staff of the
organisation, with whom their relationship is essentially feudal.
They seldom retire from the board without a peerage.

The third is for odd-balls and zealots who
gather around the board table like street drinkers around burning
pallets on a chilly night. The average age for trustees in this
category, which can be found in almost any outfit where
philanthropy is stronger than professionalism, is under 65. They
bring together a collection of enthusiams and obsessions, from
different walks of life and corners of the country. Sartorially
diverse and more than averagely hirsute, they are deeply
conscientious and capable of paying extraordinary attention to
detail. They adore a good argument and are not afraid to speak
their mind, at length and repeatedly. They may be loved by members
of staff, but for the chief executive, they are a nightmare to
manage – a task only made possible by the fact that they seldom
agree with each other.

The fourth is a resting place for those who
have served a lifetime and earned a perch among senior dignitaries.
The average age is under 85. They are there because no-one would
dream of asking them to move on. Some are legendary figures while
others are less easily accounted for. They supposedly bring to the
table a blue-chip gravitas that chimes well with the more
conservative breed of philanthropist. They are not sure who works
for the organisation, which is likely to be a traditional charity
of ancient lineage. They cause the chief executive little trouble,
governing with a light touch and gently enjoying themselves.

At different times in my career, I have served
on, chaired, worked for and even inaugurated various boards of
trustees. My over-riding impression is that the trustees are never
sure what is expected of them and the staff see them as an irritant
rather than an asset. At a basic level, trustees are there to
ensure that charities are run according to their stated objectives
and no one pilfers the funds. A common view is that it doesn’t
matter who they are as long as they are not a discharged bankrupt
or convicted fraudster.

The Charities Commission advocates a more
considered approach to trustee appointments: analyse the skills
required, work towards an ethnic, gender and age balance, throw the
net wide to avoid cronyism and make sure recruits know what they
are letting themselves in for.

Charities and other non-profit organisations
are now operating in a more challenging environment than ever
before. They are under increased public scrutiny and facing new
financial pressures. They have to cope with rapid technological
change and many are taking on new responsibilities as public
services are restructured. This suggests a need for more effective,
innovative leadership at board level, right across the voluntary
sector. CC

– See feature page 28

Anna Coote is director of public
health, The King’s Fund.

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