Governance, Leadership

‘Reply all’ is underused in charity governance

Trustees absenting themselves from email exchanges is the equivalent of sitting in a board meeting with a paper bag over their head and earplugs in.

I worked with an organisation whose trustees cc’d the chair into email exchanges where the obvious intent was to show the chair that the other person was not a good trustee.

He pointed out that it was the person copying him in, not their intended victim, that made a bad impression. The cc’ing stopped.

I share this because I actually think cc and ‘reply all’ are underused, especially in governance.

Yes, go back and read it again. I didn’t say overused – I said underused.

There are trustees who will say “please don’t clog up my inbox” with cc’d and reply-all emails. Which is probably understandable – but, I think, misguided.

I wonder if it’s partly because so many trustees don’t understand their “corporate” responsibility?

In charity law all trustees are accountable for everything. It’s no defence if your chair or another trustee makes a decision that you knew nothing about.

You all go down together because you are one corporate body.

So to absent yourself from email exchanges between trustees or the executive and trustees, because “inbox”, is the equivalent of sitting in a board meeting with a paper bag over your head and earplugs in.

Not only that – the danger is the message your colleagues get is that you believe you are way more important and busy than them.

And when you don’t respond to virtual messages or emails – or, indeed, respond privately – you risk giving the impression to those you left out that you’re not engaged, you may not know what’s going on, or that you don’t value their view or care about sharing yours.

Good governance is not about rocking up to a board meeting four times a year or attending the odd subcommittee.

It’s about demonstrably engaging (obviously at the right level) with the work of the charity as it pertains to governance.

You were chosen for this role because of what you can contribute, not just in a meeting, but via email or other comms channels such as Microsoft Teams.

We’re all busy. But we have made a commitment to a charity to serve as a trustee and that means we have both a legal and a moral duty to engage.

We are adults, we can choose what to file and what to ignore in our inboxes. I think it’s unwise to let others make the decision for you as to what you are excluded from in your governance duties.

Good governance means you know what is going on and are engaging in the work – demonstrably so.

I’m sure you understand how disheartening it is to have communicated with the board as a chief executive, or with your fellow trustees, to have an email just float about in the ether with no response or engagement when even a simple acknowledgement would do.

The irony is, of course, that the downside of the chair saying “don’t cc me” was that he stopped knowing what was going on.

So be careful what you wish for!


This article originally appeared on the Third Sector website.