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What on earth are voluntary sector trustees for?

February 19, 2014

trustee blog 2

I have been involved as a trustee or committee member of various voluntary organisations for a long time. Well actually – for a very long time.

I have become increasingly concerned that it is us in the voluntary sector who are too often unclear about the role and contribution of trustees. This is ironic because the voluntary contributions of trustees is one key element that makes the voluntary sector different and brings so much added value.

The dead hand of governance

I know that as the conversation turns to governance its time to switch off…. don’t stop reading just yet! I am going to try to avoid getting sucked into a piece on the bone dry world of corporate governance here.

I know they are not elected but being a trustee of a voluntary organisation – local or national – is just as political (with a small ‘p’) as being a councillor, MP or non exec on an NHS trust board but I don’t think this similarity is sufficiently understood or utilised within the sector.

It is too often the case that executive teams see trustees on voluntary bodies as a necessary evil – who will go through and check their work at board meetings – provide some useful support to key internal processes such as HR and Finance and sometimes bring a bit of internal testing on user experience and that – more or less – is it.

This is frankly not good enough. If we are to play to the strengths of the voluntary sector we need to expect that trustees will bring with them much more than this –  here are three examples:

Specialist Technical Knowledge – When I was a trustee of a specialist CAB working in the mental health sector we always had at least one specialist NHS mental health worker on the board and often a current or ex service user of mental health services.

Environmental Analysis – another voluntary organisation that I am currently a trustee of has clearly worked hard to ensure that they have a wide range of trustees who have powerful connections and current experience of the wider social policy environment in which the organisation operates. The board spends little time on long discussions on finance, HR and programme implementation – the CE clearly understands that they have to do the bulk of this work and report on it to the board. Instead the CE uses the board to understand the environment, test ideas and develop strategies for action.

External Relationships – Trustees can bring real added value to developing relationships at the top of organisations. In many cases voluntary sector managers – even at Chief Executive level are compromised. I think that some of the challenges they face can include:

  • Status – executives in a voluntary organisation may be at the top of their organisation but large funders – for example a local authority funding a local voluntary organisation – will see them as effectively a middle manager at best. They will often allocate a fairly junior manager – usually responsible for contracts to manage the relationship. This immediately reduces what should be a strategic relationship to a contractual service provider one.
  • Conflict of interest – discussions about funding – particularly at a time of cuts – can be particularly difficult when these are led by managers whose staff (and indeed the manager) may be materially affected by the outcome of negotiations. This is particularly true when local funders will know that the final decision about financial viability and strategies to address deficits rests legally with the trustees not the manager.

Trustees are actually the custodians of an organisations values and vision – they should be in the best position to articulate these to leaders of other organisations – elected members, MPs, trust governors. They bring with them an experiential authority that comes from their willingness to take on unpaid positions of leadership on voluntary organisations boards. In my experience politicians and non executives understand, respect and value this role and welcome the opportunity to have this sort of dialogue and relationship.

It is through building these strategic relationships that foundations are laid for long term practical joint action and sometimes even funding!
What do you think?

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