Trustee roles and responsibilities
In light of Trustees Week, (7-16 November) Helena Wilkinson of Price Bailey shares some practical hints for trustees, to ensure that they really are fulfilling their duties.
1. Start with an excellent strategy and an effective execution plan
The Board of any organisation has a delicate balancing act to perform between having sufficient knowledge, information and reporting to be able to formulate and agree the strategy and monitoring of daily operations to ensure that the strategy is being delivered, and becoming bogged down in those same everyday operations. It is all too easy for the Board to become engrossed in the detail behind the strategy and plans which should be the role of the chief executive and the senior management team. Any trustee needs to be an informed leader or guide.
I have heard of instances where trustees undertake annual staff performance assessments or are in attendance at these reviews. This makes it very difficult for trustees to stand back and have an independent view as they become embroiled in day to day issues. Where the trustees are the only individuals involved and also run the charity, the different aspects of these roles can become even more blurred.
An excellent strategy is the starting point for a well-governed organisation. This needs to be followed up with an effective plan, prepared by management, for delivery of the strategy. Theoretically, trustees need to then simply monitor progress against the strategy. Easy to say! In order for this to work in practice, there needs to be a clear understanding of the key objectives of the strategy and how progress can therefore be measured. How can you tell if delivery of the strategy is off track?
2. Set very clear performance objectives, measures and reporting structure
Be very clear on these measures. If a measure is purely based on ‘numbers of beneficiaries seen' this will not help determine delivery. It needs to be more specific as to why beneficiaries are seen. Is it to counsel them? If so, the measure could be how many were successfully counselled or it could be the number of beneficiaries seen and issues resolved, or referred for additional services or how long it took to see the individual in hours or days if appointments needed to be made. And if these are appropriate measures then what needs to be improved to show that the strategy is on track. Often data is collated about the easily identifiable measures rather than those that matter. Be clear on what information you need as a trustee to be able to assess progress against the strategy.
3. Track progress, then stand back and review
Key to being able to carry out your role as a trustee, even though you maintain ultimate responsibility, is to delegate. Be this to management, individuals or committees and such delegation is very clear with defined roles and responsibilities and what is expected to be delivered to the Board as a result. The Board will ultimately need to ratify decisions but a clear process and reporting structure will help the Board in this role.
One way in which I have seen boards successfully manage this conundrum is to hold a focused strategy day which draws from the staff of the charity and its beneficiaries to determine what activities the charity should be undertaking. Without feedback and input it is too easy to continue with the activities traditionally undertaken to date as they seem to work. Standing back and reviewing what the charity is about and how it is achieving its outcomes is a good way to deliver more effective solutions that evolve and keep apace of change.
4. Identify your board’s skills gaps
Be aware of your board’s strengths and weaknesses. It is a good idea to have a skills audit, which can be a relatively simple process, in asking each member of the board about their strengths and where their expertise lies. This is enormously beneficial for the board when they are making decisions as it makes it far clearer where any skills gap may lie, and where an individual needs to be co opted onto the board for a specific decision or professional advice needs to be sought.
5. Be transparent in your decision making
Finally, be transparent - ensure that your decisions and the reasons behind them are clearly documented. If there is a clear trail on decisions made and proper consultation on areas outside of the board's knowledge then the charity should be able to demonstrate good decision-making when challenged. Messages to the outside world, be it on the website, in an annual review or accounts, must be clear and consistent on strategy, whilst communicating the key messages.
To help trustees make informed decisions about investment options for their charities', we have created two whitepapers which aim to provide guidance.