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Top Tips to be a More Effective Board Trustee

3 November 2014 at 4:18 pm
Xavier Smerdon
A good board will have a broad set of interests and skills and will work together to create a team that delivers, writes nfpSynergy’s Joe Saxton who offers his top five things to do to be a more effective Board Trustee.

Xavier Smerdon | 3 November 2014 at 4:18 pm


Top Tips to be a More Effective Board Trustee
3 November 2014 at 4:18 pm

A good board will have a broad set of interests and skills and will work together to create a team that delivers, writes nfpSynergy’s Joe Saxton who offers his top five things to do to be a more effective Board Trustee.

A good board may have a ‘balanced set of axes to grind’ about all the issues a charity faces. Some trustees may find they have little in common with each other, but collectively the key is whether or not they do the job.

These are my personal views gathered over 25 years experience. The key issue for me is whether my experiences are useful in stimulating others to look at how they can make the boards on which they sit more effective.

1…Get to know members of staff (and other trustees)

There is a danger for any trustee (and for any board) in having the CEO/senior management team and the papers sent in preparation for board meetings as their only sources of insight, knowledge and information. A useful trustee will be out there meeting staff, seeing projects, talking to volunteers and acting as the eyes and ears of the board.

Over time, the best way to do this is to know some staff well enough to email, call or visit them and ask “how are things going?” In reality, the same is true for getting to know your fellow trustees – it can really help a board become more effective if trustees know each other and talk between meetings.

2….Get to know three specific areas of an organisation’s work

Trustees are responsible for everything. However, it's all too easy for trustees to be responsible for everything and know about nothing in detail. I think it’s always good for a trustee to have two or three areas of an organisation’s work that they know about in a bit more detail. Sometimes these are called portfolios. In the world of school governors, these roles are called ‘link governors’ – knowing and understanding how a department is doing. Trustees should pick their areas and immerse themselves so they can add value inside or outside board meetings.

3….Ask for non-financial as well as financial performance indicators

How many boards measure the money in great detail (my favourite is always actual vs. budget for insurance costs), but do little regular monitoring of non-financial aspects?

The irony is of course that charities don’t exist to make money, they exist to make a difference, so at every board meeting there should be regular data on non-financial parameters. Let me put this another way. Imagine that a board could never use money as a proxy for success. How would you know that your charity is doing a great job? And in particular, a better job this year than last year?

4….Be the grit in the oyster in a particular aspect of the organisation’s work

One of the ways that any trustee can do a better job is to be engaged in constructive discontent on an issue. How could we do this better? How are our peers and competitors doing? What is holding our performance back? What extra resources would help us do a better job? Any trustee can take on the role of being the grit in the oyster for better performance, officially or by just making it happen.

5…..Make trustee meetings make the big decisions

One of the roles that an individual trustee can help with is making the board processes work so that the big challenges are tackled by the trustee board. “Chair, I think that would be a really good issue for a board discussion”, or “Can we discuss the issue of … and the reason I say that a trustee can agitate to get items on the agenda is that it’s all too easy for boards to have such a routine of minute-approving, committee-reporting, matters-arising and item-noting that they don’t actually discuss the big issues (which may only get discussed in CEO/chair meetings or not at all).

Worst still, some CEOs and chairs prefer it if board discussions are controlled and mundane. After all a compliant board is much easier to manage and less time-consuming.

A final thought – focus on decisions made, rather than finishing on time

I sympathise when busy CEOs and chairs want board meetings to be run on a tight rein, but rarely is it good for governance, strategy, beneficiaries or innovation for boards to be unchallenging. Individual trustees can be the agents to provoke discussion of the big challenges that an organisation faces.

In this sense, there is no greater irony than when a chair celebrates finishing a meeting on time, or even early, if in doing so the chance for genuine, strategic debate has been stifled or side-stepped. That is not to say that board meetings overrunning are a good thing if time has been spent discussing minutiae or issues not even on the agenda.

The question at the end of each board meeting should be “Did we make decisions today that will affect what we do a year or five years from now?”, rather than “Did we finish on time?”

About the author: Joe Saxton is Driver of Ideas at nfpSynergy based in the UK. He has been the chair of four different charities and founded two. He has sat on the boards or sub-committees of four more charities and also has experience from numerous other charities where he has worked with the trustee boards as either a consultant to the organisation or as a senior member of staff. The thoughts in this piece are based on his personal experience of all those trustee boards over the last 25 years.

This article is an edited version of Joe Saxton’s complete article entitled A Trusted Role: The challenges of creating an effective trustee board

Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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