How to create a positive and engaged trustee board

William Butler, DSC Trustee, talks through how to create an engaged and inspired Board of Trustees.

As Chair of DSC, I’m fortunate to work with an extremely talented group of trustees, directors and staff. My professional and trustee lives have encompassed many different chairing experiences, not all of which have felt as positive and engaged as DSC’s. So what are the critical ingredients that make this recipe work? 

Value experience and executive expertise

First, is a recognition of the diverse experience and expertise that each of us bring. This requires trustees to value and cherish executive expertise, to understand their role as creators of strategic options that enable the Board to make informed judgements, and to avoid requesting volumes of data that don’t contribute to our primary oversight role. Robust and respectful challenge is therefore a critical ingredient in making our purposeful partnership work, as is a recognition of the need for trustees to stay at a ‘big picture’ level and avoid the temptation to dabble in operational matters that are primarily an executive prerogative. 

Create an open feedback culture

Second, DSC’s Board operates an open and transparent feedback culture. This includes trustees and directors having a recently initiated annual structured opportunity to share their views on my performance as Chair, pinpointing areas for improvement and objectives for the forthcoming year. I also have annual one to ones with every trustee, which contributes to identifying what we could do better and differently.  

For instance, these processes offer a focus on how I as Chair and the Board can both support contributions from quieter trustees and encourage restraint in the more talkative! And since three of our quarterly Board meetings are virtual, achieving this requires us to explore how we can make effective use of mechanisms that replicate face-to-face meetings processes, i.e. through small breakout groups that feed into full board decision making and using the ‘chat’ function, an equivalent of actual coffee break conversations. We will also continue with simple and effective mechanisms that enable trustees to engage with relevant issues between Board meetings (e.g. via a ‘cc all’ agreement that ensures we are kept on the proverbial ‘same page’) and through the development of creative alternative means to ensure increased informal trustee and staff engagement. 

Trustee recruitment should be transparent

The third ingredient in a recipe for positive engagement is DSC’s approach to sustaining and regenerating our Board. So in addition to applications being stripped of identifying characteristics and the separation shortlisting and interview panels, we’ve worked hard to make trustee recruitment transparent and to remove obstacles to attracting applicants from the widest talent pool. Consequently, our process doesn’t require extraneous biographical details, positively encourages applications from those who may not have traditionally considered themselves as charity trustees, supported by a self-assessment skills matrix which is prefaced by a statement that candidates aren’t expected to possess all or any given number of the listed skills, while completion helps us to understand what training and/or support may be required. These practices have resulted in a Board with an age range of 21 to 75, representative of the diversity of UK society and of the charities we serve.  

Change your idea of growth

Based on long experience, the final ingredient I’d like to share is my firm belief that trustees must avoid the false premise that ‘growth’ is solely concerned with getting bigger and therefore increasing organisational turnover. For DSC, true and sustainable growth is about the scope of our influence, the increase in our reach, and the value we can add to the impact our beneficiaries make to theirs. 

DSC has a whole array of resources, courses and books on good governance. Take a look here.