Governance, Leadership

Lessons of a trustee – what I learned

Joe Jenkins reflects on the lessons he's learned over the 8 years he's been a trustee for Refugee Action.

I’ve been full of emotion this week as I met with the remarkable Board of Trustees at Refugee Action for my final meeting after 8 incredible years. It’s been an honour and privilege to have served this inspirational organisation as trustee and vice-chair, and I move on with immense pride for all that they have achieved and great hope for what lies ahead.

Reflecting on those 8 years, there are lessons about what makes a great Board and an effective trustee that I wanted to capture and carry forward with me. In no particular order:

1. Strategy matters

Since the summer of 2015 when I first stepped onto the Board, Refugee Action has undertaken a remarkable transformation – in service delivery, partnership working, campaigning approach, fundraising growth, anti-oppressive practice and shifting power to experts by experience. These changes were all intentional, thoughtfully debated by the Board & leadership – then prioritised and followed through. Great strategy is a compass not a map, setting clear direction and making important choices up front, then empowering the team to make situational decisions that drive you forward. Avoid the minutiae and temptation to dive into operational detail – ultimately the board needs to hold space for the big picture and keep clear sighted on the vision.

2. Invest in the long-term

The day to day demands on the staff team are immense in any context – and extraordinary for a refugee charity navigating a global pandemic, worldwide refugee crisis, cost of living crisis and hostile aggressive government. So the urgent has great sway over the important – both on operational decision-making and reacting to short-term demands. The board has a crucial role to play in keeping focussed on the long-term – ensuring the organisation has space to reflect on and make decisions with future implications in mind. One crucial example is the investment in fundraising. In 2015, fundraising cost more than it brought in; to invest would require drawing down on reserves and accepting that returns would take time, not everything would work, and we would need to hold our nerve. It wasn’t always easy when there were so many other urgently presenting choices for spend, but the Refugee Action Board backed a long term investment plan that has resulted in an award winning fundraising team achieving major growth over those 8 years, now smashing every annual target with significant surplus budgets. Growth in resource and impact takes time, investment, patience and courage

3. The job is to navigate risk not avoid risk

As legally accountable stewards of your charity, the weight of responsibility hangs heavy for trustees and risks are always front of mind. Yet the simple reality is that there is no way to avoid risk: every action and inaction, decision or indecision, carries risk: and often the impact of not doing something can be far more significant than making a bold choice. It’s important therefore that trustees are clear-sighted on risk, but only as a guide to decision-making. Boards must weigh up opportunity costs alongside risks, balance the long-term with immediate needs, and ultimately be guided by values and impact on their mission. Every big decision made by the Refugee Action Board involved significant calculated risk – and all the many successes are a direct result of navigating difficult choices with incomplete data but strong clarity of purpose and values.

4. The role of the Board should be contextual and intentional

I’m a big fan of Julia Unwin’s “5 S’s of governance”: Strategy, Scrutiny, Stretch, Support, Stewardship. Unwin observes: good boards do all these things, great boards do them intentionally. I’ve learned over the last 8 years how important it is for every trustee and the Board collectively to be thoughtful and deliberate about the role we need to play at any given time. To gauge when the team need us to elevate the thinking, or to dive into detail; to stretch and challenge or to just hold space for reflection and support. It can be tempting to fall into one particular mode: as a Board to assume we should always challenge, or always support; as an individual; to believe your job is to be the optimistic trustee or the risk-conscious trustee; in reality, we all need to play all those roles, depending on what will add most value at the time. When I think of where I was most useful to the Board, it was not through playing one particular role all the time, but responding meaningfully to our context and encouraging others to do likewise.

5. The Chair role is pivotal

Every trustee has a crucial job on the Board – our work is too important to carry passengers, and we each have value to bring to our collective responsibility. And – the chair has an especially important privileged contribution that will be pivotal to the success of the Board. While the performance of a Board is not only measured by the quality of the chair, a high performing Board just isn’t possible without a high performing Chair person. They can’t be, and shouldn’t be expected to be, a super hero. But they do need to work hard on their relationship with the CEO, be thoughtful intentional and mindful of the dynamics with all trustees, consciously including everyone, while serving with empathy, vulnerability, humility and courage. Sensitive to their power and the responsibility of their role; reading the mood of the overall board, guiding and enabling decision-making. I was fortunate to serve alongside Penny Lawrence, who exemplified these characteristics and I am grateful to have learned so much from her inspirational leadership

6. Empower experts by experience

One of the most significant choices made by the Board in my time – of which I am exceptionally proud – was to commit to shift power at all levels of the organisation (or rather, to remove the barriers to power) that would centre people with lived experience of being a refugee or asylum seeker in the UK. Back in 2020, I held a series of leadership conversations on my podcast “On The Mind Of…” and one comment by Polly Neate of Shelter really stuck with me: “it’s not enough to just use your power kindly; you also have to be prepared to give it away”. And so it has been: the majority of trustees are now experts by experience (as well as experts through a diverse range of skills and knowledge), staff appointments include ringfencing for lived experience and the CEO has committed to ensure his successor will bring direct experience of the asylum system too. Furthermore, we have established an EBE network who have a powerful voice on strategy and operations, with involvement in every aspect of the charity’s work. And I can testify without a shadow of doubt that this diversification and involvement of people with this experience has enriched the quality of conversation and decision making at every level, and ultimately is leading to far greater impact. It has strengthened my view that every Board must ensure the voices of those with direct lived experience of their mission must have a seat at the top table.

7. Values first

With refugees and asylum seekers. Courageous. Collaborative. These values were clarified in the first strategy I was involved in, 8 years ago. They have evolved and strengthened since. And have been front and centre in every conversation, deliberation, decision and debate. These values have guided us through controversy and crisis. They were instrumental in committing to remove barriers to power for people with lived experience; to own the responsibility to be an anti-racist organisation and take the action necessary to tackle oppression in every form; in speaking truth to power even when it was potentially damaging and carried great personal cost; in the endlessly complex challenging tiring task of coalition building and partnership work amongst an often fragmented exhausted sector; and innovating with our campaigning, communication and fundraising when we didn’t know what might work and whether we’d return our investment. Trustees must be clear on values and values must guide the work of the Board; the hardest decisions become the easiest when they match your values

I leave the board now full of admiration, respect and pride in all the people – trustees, staff, volunteers, supporters, partners, and above all the refugees, asylum seekers, clients and experts by experience – that come together under the banner of Refugee Action. So much has been achieved over these past 8 years and it’s been the greatest privilege to have played the smallest of parts. There are far too many people to name them all, but I’m especially grateful to Penny Lawrence, Stephen Hale, Tim Naor Hilton and Zoe Grumbridge for all that I’ve learned from you.

Right now it can feel like the darkest of times; yet I left the meeting this week full of optimism and hope for the future; because the moral arc of the universe may be long but it does bend towards justice and I know with all my heart and soul that the incredible people at Refugee Action will change the world for refugees and asylum seekers. Humanity will win, it always does. Onwards & upwards.

This article was originally published on Medium, check it out here.