Hands on…or off?

As voluntary organisations take on a greater
role in providing services, trustees are constantly being
challenged to redefine their roles. But tensions between them and
senior staff can provide a stumbling block to progress. Rachel
Downey examines potential sources of disagreement and looks at the
difficulties that charities are facing in recruiting trustees.

“Chairs are from Mars, chief executives are
from Venus” is the intriguing title of a conference being held next
week. The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary
Organisations (Acevo) has organised the event because it believes
that many people working in the voluntary sector view the two
groups as living on separate planets. The perceived differences can
result in senior staff pulling in one direction while trustees
steer a different course. The result is frustration and an
organisation heading for the rocks.

In the past year Acevo has worked with 15
charities in which trustees or the chairpersons alone were in
conflict with the chief executive. The most common cause was
trustees interfering in areas which the chief executive regarded as
theirs, such as the day-to-day management of the organisation.
“Trustees have responsibility for the organisation and that means
there will always be this tension between them and chief
executives,” says Acevo chief executive Stephen Bubb.

Tensions also surface when there’s a lack of
clarity or a lack of agreement about what an organisation primarily
exists for. Is it to provide services, to give out money, or to
lobby, challenge and make a noise in the ears of government and
decision-makers? These decisions have to be taken by trustees after
discussion with senior staff, says Barnardo’s chief executive Roger
Singleton. Staff also need to be clear about the job they are
expecting trustees to do. “Where there’s confusion in these areas,
we get a lot of negative activity and run the risk of resources
being wasted.”

Another fault line emerges when staff want to
change the role of the organisation. Long-established charities,
set up to alleviate poverty and hardship among vulnerable groups,
are often governed by trustees with somewhat old-fashioned views
about the role of the organisation as a benevolent alms-giving
body. Staff working with disadvantaged groups can begin questioning
the role of the organisation when they find themselves helping out
people in distress whose circumstances do not improve. They
question why they are still needed and whether the organisation
should be focusing on attacking the causes of the hardship.

In one example, trustees of the Children’s
Society had reservations about the charity’s campaign against
custody for under-18s, as the policy directly challenged the
judicial system. But after visiting the society’s remand review
project at Feltham young offenders institution and speaking to
staff, they returned full of enthusiasm for the charity’s

“As our work develops and we get into more
controversial areas, we have been more keen to get the trustees out
and about,” says Ian Sparks, chief executive of the Children’s
Society. “That’s what makes the difference for them.” But, he adds,
this has to be linked with the charity’s stance as a social justice
organisation. “We are about causes not just the amelioration.”
Trustees’ induction includes learning about these principles.

S parks argues that the real reason why staff
can end up doing one thing and trustees thinking another is because
voluntary organisations “do not press our trustees hard enough to
go out to see what the reality of life is. My experience,” he adds,
“is when they go out and see it, they come back enthused by what we
are doing. There will always be difficult issues where difficult
decisions have to be made and the only way is to be open and talk
them through. Sometimes chief executives can be too clever by half
at spinning stories. Communication between trustees and staff has
to be frank.”

Direct confrontation between senior staff and
trustees is rare. But when it does occur, the outcome depends on
personalities, experience, and the weight the individuals carry in
the outside world. And in the social care charitable field, filled
with high-profile charities with royal and celebrity chairpersons,
that last consideration counts.

Conflicts can be exacerbated by one person’s
intense investment in an organisation – with many chief executives
warning “beware the founder syndrome”. One likened the emotional
commitment demonstrated by some founders to that of raising a
child. This passion is valuable in staff, but in the hands of
founders who will not let go and want to control the running of the
organisation, it can be disastrous.

But a chief executive who won’t make room for
the trustees to govern can also be disastrous. “I believe strongly
that trustees should be supportive and challenging and you should
not become too cosy,” says Singleton. “There should be some
rigorous challenge and if people find that not nice, they should
consider whether they should continue. I hear a lot of chief
executives grumble about their trustees but there are some trustees
who are saddled with rather arrogant chief executives who think
they know it all. If they want to run everything, they should set
up their own business.”

Tensions also arise because of the different
experience and skills base of trustees and chief executive. “In my
experience the amateurishness of trustees does get in the way
sometimes because you have very experienced chief executives,” says
Acevo’s Stephen Bubb.

Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the
Directory of Social Change, goes further and questions whether some
trustees are up to the job. “A lot of them do not understand what
their responsibilities are as a trustee, particularly in the small
voluntaries,” she says. “Trusteeship is a voluntary role – it is
not like being a non-executive director of a profitable company,
for which you are paid.” Many do not realise that they are liable
if there is any mismanagement, or the organisation gets into
financial difficulties. And they can be struck off, meaning they
can never become a trustee again.

Allcock Tyler argues that chief executives
must challenge trustees about their commitment, what they are
doing, and what they want the organisation and the senior staff to
do. Every two years Barnardo’s conducts an audit of its performance
among senior staff and trustees. Through this it identifies a
programme of improvement and change for the next two years. “It’s a
way of sanctioning everybody to be critical about how we are
performing,” says Singleton.

Other voluntary organisations are following
suit. Viv Fox, the national director of Change, the national
charity for people with learning difficulties and sensory
impairment, wanted a way of making her trustees “more successful”.
She says: “As much as I can go off and do my thing, I felt they
should be more involved in the process.”

She sent out questionnaires to all trustees
and filled one in herself. It made them think. Some returned forms
saying they were too busy and were not able to commit the time
required to do the job properly. Another pointed out they lacked
the skills in certain areas and the chief executive saw this as an
opportunity to provide them with training. The outcome was that the
need for more members of the board became evident. Recruitment is
already under way.

A new Trustee Act came into force in February,
giving trustees greater freedom in how they manage the financial
side of running a charity. It means that each board has to review
all the risks facing the charity not just financial ones.
Unfortunately, that legislation will not have a direct effect on
the calibre of trustees.

Governance and trusteeship are also under the
spotlight of the government’s performance and innovation unit in
its wide-ranging review of the voluntary sector. This influential
body is examining the legal and regulatory framework for charities
and the voluntary sectors. It is questioning whether the basic
principle of trusteeship is the right foundation for the governance
of charities.

The review also raises the thorny issue of
whether trustees should be paid. It asks whether there is any
contradiction between paying trustees to carry out their duties,
paying trustees to provide other services for their charity, and
having paid staff members as trustees. Although many are averse to
this suggestion, the advantage would be that people not in
full-time work could afford to become trustees. As Acevo’s Stephen
Bubb puts it: “Those who come from the older constituency have more
time but are not as up to date with what’s going on elsewhere. The
people you want to get on board do not have the time.”

Acevo is also lobbying for the new law to make
it compulsory for employers to allow their staff time for public
duties to include work for voluntary organisations. Both moves
could improve the recruitment difficulties (see box).

However, the issue of who wields the power in
voluntary organisations cannot be solved as easily. As Tesse
Akepki, head of governance and trusteeship at the National Council
for Voluntary Organisations, puts it: “There’s no answer for this.
In every organisation power will lie formally or informally in
different places.” She advises: “Be clear about what the board is
there to do, and work everything else around it. Be clear about who
should be doing what; have ownership of what should be done; keep
an eye on personal and hidden agendas. Be able to confront conflict
and take a strong stand against inappropriate behaviour – the
‘softer side’ of things. No amount of legal activity or
professional skill can act on this.”

just can’t get the trustees these

Recruiting social care staff is not the only
difficulty facing many voluntary organisations in the field – they
are also finding it tricky to find trustees. “Recruitment is
definitely getting harder,” says Tesse Akpeki, head of governance
and trusteeship at the National Council for Voluntary
Organisations. “Personal liability and regulation has increased.
And the voluntary sector is competing with public

She warns that some charities are failing to
take up the challenge. She highlights NCVO research1
released earlier this year, revealing that some organisations are
still using the recruitment methods they relied on a decade ago.
The study revealed that only one-third of charities had job
descriptions for trustees, and only a quarter offered training and
induction. It recommended regular reviews of size and mix of
trustee boards, and recruitment methods. Akpeki believes that the
way the role is presented is crucial. “Demystify things and make it
worthwhile for people – just show them they could make a

“It does depend on the sexiness of the
organisation,” she adds. “Bigger charities do not have much
challenge in attracting trustees.” Barnardo’s chief executive Roger
Singleton concurs. Not only does the charity have few recruitment
problems, the board can identify the specific skills which it needs
and can “go out and get them”. But his confidence is not mirrored
by chief executives in smaller charities or even in large voluntary
organisations in other fields.

One is Julia Ross, chairperson of the Mental
Health After Care Association (Maca). The association has a
long-standing connection with an accountancy firm which means
trustees with financial acumen are available, but there is a dearth
of people on the legal and business side. The fact that Maca works
with people with mental health problems makes it more difficult to
attract trustees. “It’s not high profile and if people are aligning
themselves with it, that stigmatises them as well,” says Ross.

Preliminary findings of research due to be
published next year, seen by Tesse Akpeki, show that even when
charities can attract trustees, they are not the right match for
the skills the organisation needs. Voluntary organisations are
taking the “anyone will do” attitude, or are going for big names,
which can be fatal.

“It requires a much more imaginative
approach,” adds Singleton. “There’s a tendency for people to go
looking for people who have a lot of rich contacts – it never
works. It’s better to look for those people who are conscientious
and have the time and ability.” He suggests retired people and
existing and previous service users should be targeted.

1 C Cornforth, Recent
Trends in Charity Governance and Trusteeship
, NCVO, 2001 from
Hamilton House on 01536 399016 or via website

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