Governance, Trustees

Charity trustees: seven top tips for a well-functioning board

Our expert trainer tells us how to help your board function in the right way

Charity trustees carry a lot of responsibility as they are ultimately responsible for everything the charity does. Take a look at these top tips from our expert trainer on how to help your board function in the right way.

1.Have clearly defined responsibilities and roles

As the governing body of your organisation, the board of trustees are accountable for all activities and the successful operation of your charity. First things first, every single person on your board should be aware of why they are there in the first place. Some of the responsibilities they have include; giving the organisation direction, managing people and finances, making sure your organisation obeys the law and maintains independence, just to name a few!  Because there are such a high number of duties, the board should outline the different roles each person should take from the get-go. It’ll make life easier if everyone knows who is accountable for what.

Trustees are charged with safeguarding and promoting the charity’s reputation and need to be fully alert to factors that can damage your reputation. Fit for purpose safeguarding policies, practices and procedures are a must in the current environment. The high performing board however must be able to balance managing risk with seizing opportunities when they appear. In an uncertain environment this is no mean feat!

2.Have clarity of purpose and expectations

After getting to grips with your charity’s vision and mission, the board will need to prioritise, rather than trying to achieve everything all at once. To do so, trustees need to ensure tasks are given to the right people, targets are set for those actions and, especially for the long term goals, that a strategic plan is created to ensure everyone knows what is expected of them.

3.Demonstrate leadership

The first part of this is to make sure you have chosen the right person to be the chair. It is the position of the chair to ensure the board functions by allowing everyone to contribute to the meetings, address all items on the agenda and on occasion assist your charity’s management team. Also, to display real leadership it is crucial for the chief executive, senior leadership and the board to work well together and view themselves as one team, rather than opposing forces within the organisation.

4.Respect different roles and be able to tap into and value diverse perspectives

Now, for the first time, there is standalone guidance on diversity in Governance.  Principle 6 of the Charity Governance Code states ‘the board’s approach to diversity supports its effectiveness, leadership and decision making.’  The code stresses that “diversity” in the widest sense is essential for boards to stay informed, responsive and able to navigate the fast-paces changes facing the voluntary sector. Recent evidence shows that high performing boards are diverse boards, so it is worth the effort to invest in diversifying your board.

It is important your board is made up of a mixture of people with a combination of skills and experience that they can bring to the organisation. It may be that some members have certain skills, such as accountancy or event management, have been a beneficiary of your charity, so know about the users of the services you offer, or be well-connected with influential people. Whatever they bring to the table, all members should be open to hearing from different perspectives, as it may add value to your organisation as whole.

5.Communicate well both internally and externally

Internally, holding effective meetings is essential. Board papers need to be of high quality so the meeting gets off on the right foot and there needs to be an agreed purpose, good record keeping and, of course, a positive atmosphere!  While communication within meetings is vital, information should flow both ways between the board and the staff, as well as all your other stakeholders. Decisions being made in meetings must be shared with those that will be affected and the reasoning behind these decisions should also be known.

The board also needs to have a pulse on what is happening externally and how this will impact on the organisation.   Carrying out a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats), can help the board as it shapes its strategies.

6.Use delegation effectively

Although the board are ultimately responsible for your organisation, delegation will play a big part in a well-functioning group of trustees. The work load can be heavy and delegation to other members of the board, to sub-committees, working groups or staff and volunteers can ensure that action is taken to help your organisation achieve all of its aims.

There also have to be schemes of delegation to ensure that tasks undertaken by staff are appropriately and adequately passed to them by the board. A performance framework can then be used to monitor and evaluate the progress made against these delegated tasks.

7. Embrace Diversity

Critical requirements for board members and those who support them are to listen hard, learn fast, be transparent and balance opportunities and threats.  This requires exploring new uses, creating different experiences, identifying the best ways of making vital connections and evaluating the pros and cons of new technologies. High performing boards create a strategic framework that embraces the digital agenda supported by codes of conduct and a mind-set that enables the organisation and the board to be the best it can be. Trustees need to ensure that reputational impact and digital communication are part of the board’s regular risk assessment. A high performing board also needs to ensure that the organisation is ‘cyber secure’ and protected against data breaches and cyber fraud

Want to find out more? Join Duties of a Trustee on 27 April.