Making a difference: Five things any trustee can do to be more effective.
Its not easy being a humble trustee, when you aren’t the chair, or treasurer, or a committee chair, or an expert in legal or financial stuff. So how do humble trustees make a difference. Here are my five suggestions.
1. Get to know members of staff (and other trustees)
There is a danger for any trustee (and for any board) in having the CEO/senior management team, and the papers sent in preparation for board meetings as their only sources of insight, knowledge and information. A useful trustee will be out there meeting staff, seeing projects, talking to volunteers and acting as the eyes and ears of the board. Over time, the best way to do this is to know some staff well enough to email, call or visit them and ask “how are things going?” (though do remember you are never there to give directions or set tasks). In reality, the same is true for getting to know your fellow trustees – it can really help a board become more effective if trustees know each other and talk between meetings.
2. Get to know specific areas of an organisation’s work
Trustees are responsible for everything. However, it's all too easy for trustees to be responsible for everything and know about nothing in detail. I think it’s always good for a trustee to have two or three areas of an organisation’s work that they know about in a bit more detail. Sometimes these are called portfolios. In the world of school governors, these roles are called ‘link governors’ - knowing and understanding how a department is doing. Trustees should pick their areas and immerse themselves so they can add value inside or outside board meetings.
3. Ask for non-financial as well as financial performance indicators
How many boards measure the money in great detail (my favourite was always actual vs. budget for insurance costs on one board), but do little regular monitoring of non-financial aspects? The irony is of course that charities don’t exist to make money, they exist to make a difference, so at every board meeting there should be regular data on non-financial parameters. Let me put this another way. Imagine that a board could never use money as a proxy for success. How would you know that your charity is doing a great job? And in particular, a better job this year, than last year?
4. Be the grit in the oyster in a particular aspect of the organisation’s work
One of the ways that any trustee can do a better job is to be engaged in ‘constructive discontent’ on an issue. How could we do this better? How are our peers and competitors doing? What is holding our performance back? What extra resources would help us do a better job? Any trustee can take on the role of being the grit in the oyster for better performance, officially or by just making it happen. Though sometimes this drives other trustees bonkers: when I was a trustee of the RSPCA one of my peers used to regularly ask ‘What are we doing about the Madagascan land snail?’!
5. Help trustee boards make the big decisions
One of the roles that an individual trustee can help with is making the board processes work so that the big challenges are tackled by the trustee board. “Chair, I think that would be a really good issue for a board discussion”, or “Can we discuss the issue of ……?” The reason I say that a trustee should agitate to get items on the agenda is that it’s all too easy for boards to have such a routine of minute-approving, committee-reporting, matters-arising and item-noting that they don’t actually discuss the big issues (which may only get discussed in CEO/Chair meetings or not at all).
Worse still, some CEOs and Chairs prefer it if board discussions are controlled and mundane. After all, a compliant board is much easier to manage and much less time-consuming. Trustees need to stop that happening, and make sure there is a proper discussion instead.
I’d love to hear from you
I don’t for a moment pretend to have a monopoly on ideas. So I’d love to have your ideas for how trustees can make a difference to the boards, organisations and beneficiaries which they serve.
Joe Saxton has a portfolio of roles: consultant, trustee, writer, wilder, blogger and vlogger. He has been the chair of six different charities and founded two. He has sat on the boards or sub-committees of many other charities and also has experience from numerous other charities where he has worked with the trustee boards as either a consultant to the organisation or as a senior member of staff. The thoughts in this piece are based on his personal experience of all those trustee boards over the last 25 years.
Any comments, complaints, observations, or insights would be very welcome. Email him on firstname.lastname@example.org