Governance, Leadership

Up your Trustee game

DSC's CEO, Debra Allcock Tyler, offers her advice for exceptional governance.

This year is going to test Trustees to the limit. The current situation means that Trustees, as well as their charities, face unprecedented challenges and need to up their game because sound governance arrangements and practice are going to be crucial to survival and recovery.   

Those of us who are trustees know that so often we can feel completely powerless in normal times. We don’t have control of the day-to-day running of our charities; we don’t have access to all the operational detail; we don’t have any sense on a daily basis of how our staff, volunteers and beneficiaries are holding up.   

Of course, neither should we – we have properly and sensibly delegated that work to others. But it is hard, when we are the legally accountable body, not actually running our own gaffe and relying on others to give us truthful information at the right level and the right time. Especially when things are scary and challenging as they are for many of us now. 

And it’s at those times that it is so tempting for us as trustees to start wading in. To demand detail even though there’s probably not much we can do about that detail. It is so easy to push staff into producing more reports or sending us detailed numbers which distracts them from the work of delivering for the cause – and probably doesn’t actually allay our worries.   

In the heat of the moment it is all too easy for us to forget about our tone of voice and reactions and by our questions imply that we don’t trust our people or we think they’re not working hard enough or taking it seriously. It is so hard not to be impatient when they say ‘they don’t know’ because it’s scary not knowing and we want to know. 

Here’s the thing. It is brutal out there for many, many charities. For almost all of us the challenges we are facing, including financial ones, are really not about how badly run we are or how crap our Executive is – they’re a consequence of the environment. And I can promise you, take your worries and multiply it tenfold and you’ll have an idea of how much your Executive are also worrying. 

The real test of board leadership is not how you behave when things are going well – it’s how you show up when things are hard. Now is the time to demonstrate how excellent your governance leadership is by upping your governance game.   

Here are some things to consider…

Top Ten Tips: 

1. Don’t panic – you are not alone in what you face so stay calm and focused. 

2. Consider carefully the additional information you might need, if any. Don’t suddenly ask for additional information because you’re scared. If your governance information practices are sound, you are unlikely to need more than you already get – if they’re not then fix it. 

3. Ask yourself will additional information actually give you further insight or will it simply distract your Executive from focusing on delivery? Are there other “professionals” that could advise you?   

4. Remember that you all care about the charity and everyone is worried.  Someone’s calm or cheerful demeanour does not mean they’re not taking the situation very seriously. 

5. Focus on solutions – not what went wrong.  It’s more important to secure the charity’s future than seek to blame or criticise a past action. There’s no such thing as a bad decision. Decisions we make are based on our best knowledge, experience and context at the time. If a decision turns out to have been a bad one that’s just hindsight.   

6. Up your own game. When was the last time you went on any kind of governance training or read a book to help you do a better job? Don’t assume you’ve nailed it. We’re all navigating new waters – make sure you’re skilled up to do it. See a selection of our fantastic DSC resources below. 

7. Be attentive and caring of staff and volunteers: talk to them, make sure they are OK, show support and reassurance 

8. Review the risks sensibly. Don’t conflate emergency with crisis. And review risks collaboratively with staff in a calm, measured and orderly way. That way, staff, as well as your Trustees, will feel better. 

9. Be willing to think flexibly and innovatively – maybe some things you have been doing are less important than others and can be diminished in order to preserve the essentials, maybe there’s more scope for working collaboratively for others, maybe there are new ways of raising funds that you haven’t tried? 

10. Stick to the core Trustee role of thinking first, foremost and forever of the long-term good of your beneficiaries and cause. Don’t disappear down rabbit holes on particular issues and lose sight of that goal. And listen when someone points out that your bunny tail is peeking out of the rabbit hole and ask you to come back up for air! 

Free tip: Breathe! 

Here are some fab DSC resources for you to up your game this year: