Governance, Leadership

Trustees' Week questions with William Butler

William Butler, DSC Chair of Trustees, talks about his experiences as a trustee and gives some advice on some key aspects of the role of a trustee.

Why am I a DSC trustee?

In my experience the public are naturally attracted to support charities that provide direct services to beneficiaries and consequently the relevance of ‘second tier’ organisations like DSC Is often underestimated. However, I believe that the sector would be poorer without DSC and the other infrastructure organisations that provide the ‘glue’, the services, the encouragement and the support to charities and social enterprises that work directly with service users.

It is this belief that led me to apply to become a DSC trustee in 2017 and I’m glad to say that following a rigorous selection process they invited me to join the Board. While my choice of DSC was informed by its reputation as an independent and courageous organisation that is challenging, collaborative and speaks truth to power.

What does it mean to be a charity trustee?

Being a charity trustee is both a vocation and a responsibility. Deciding which to engage with is usually based on a combination of experience, emotion and the classic desire to contribute to something that also gives you something back. These and working with a number of Boards as a former senior paid sector leader are the factors that led me to become a trustee. In addition to DSC I’m involved in the governance of a number of local charities, all of which keep me grounded, enabling me to better understand the multiple challenges facing our sector and to contribute more effectively to the work of DSC.

How did your first meeting as Chair of DSC go?

I believe that the success of my first meeting as Chair was aided both by trustees’ familiarity with me as the previous Vice Chair and through the combination of ‘business as usual’ and a strategic review into an all-day meeting. Although to be fair it felt a bit ‘unusual’ since it was our first face-to-face meeting for more than 18 months!

Our strategy session focused on a review of our performance based on responses to the questions posed in our recently created and freely available Governance App, where we considered:

• What are the Board doing well and less well;
• What are our shared and differing views about how we are performing;
• What actions can we take to improve our governance?

Although this iterative process enabled us to create an action plan to tackle the key areas, as important as the answers themselves was the opportunity it gave us to identify shared issues and to engage in a constructive dialogue about the essence and soul of our organisation.

What advice would you give to prospective trustees?

While I’m not someone normally given to offering ‘top tips’ I’ve learnt that monitoring trustee effectiveness and supporting senior management are critically dependent on clear feedback and the backbone of structured outcome-focused strategic plans. And as someone well attuned to the challenges of good governance, I can’t stress enough the importance of voluntary sector organisational development that responds to the lived experience and the expressed needs of service users.

How would you avoid a Battle on the Board?

I believe that avoiding any ‘battles’ between trustees is critically dependent on creating a culture of trust, openness and transparency, recognising that whilst we may not always agree, our engagement with each other should be based on mutual respect and a willingness to listen. A productive Board is also one where trustees are able to separate governance from senior management responsibilities, avoiding ‘interfering’ beyond the Board’s strategic oversight role, while patrolling the sometimes porous boundaries between Board and CEO leadership.


More about William

William Butler is the newly elected Chair of DSC, replacing the outgoing Chair, Caron Bradshaw. He has decades of experience in the sector both as a trustee and a CEO. He is a former director of the UK’s largest mental health charity, Chief Executive of a membership disability charity, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Executive of a major voluntary sector provider of substance misuse treatment services.

He is a trustee of educational, homelessness and community action charities; and a former senior interim charity manager and a social impact consultant.