Firstly, let me make it clear how much I respect the vast majority of charity trustees. It should be publicly recognised just how much time and effort trustees give to the charities they choose to govern—time they don’t get paid for; some even incur expenses in these roles that not every cause can afford to refund.
Being a trustee can be a thankless task. It’s difficult for staff within a charity to see the bigger picture when it comes to their good cause; they’re consumed by the day to day running of the organisation and this could inappropriately influence the charity’s business plan or strategy. Impartiality is necessary at the top, as difficult decisions may sometimes need to be made—decisions that could really impact other people’s lives. It’s in these situations that the head must be consulted rather than the heart, and that’s much easier for a trustee to do than someone who will likely have direct contact with the charity’s beneficiaries.
I’ve worked with many charities and can say that these have all been quite fortunate with the make up of their governing board and recruitment of their trustees. That doesn’t mean to say I haven’t heard some horror stories as I’ve gone about my business.
These are some of the issues I’ve seen that have ultimately had a negative impact on the charity in question. We’re only human, and not every trustee is a help to the charity they’re attached to…some can be more of a hindrance. Here are some of the more common issues that can occur:
Trustees only there for the glory
This can be the most common issue, unfortunately. Being the chair (or other high-ranking position) of a charity comes with a lot of responsibility; it can also bring a lot of kudos to an individual’s career and enhance their C.V.
In cases like this, the trustee in question is more than happy to be wheeled out for photo opportunities and media interviews, but they’re less enamoured by the work that accompanies the role. They’re only in the position because being a trustee elevates their personally ambitions, not because they really care that the charity does good.
Trustees only there for the power
On a similar note, there have been cases of trustees enjoying their responsibilities too much, in that they wield their power over every element of the organisation. This micro-managing eventually stifles the organisation.
Think back to the early says of lockdown, and the venom spouted towards Jackie Weaver, who went viral on the internet. She was brought in to steer Handforth’s Parish Council towards a solution, after the board’s differences of opinion got out of hand. Though this example features a council rather than a charity, the behaviour of some of the councillors was representative of some of the behaviour I’ve seen and heard of over the years from charity trustees, and accurately reflects the point I’m making.
There can be many reasons why people sign up to be a charity trustee. Most realise the commitment this requires; however, there are some trustees who are only present on paper, because every time there’s a trustee meeting or reason for the board to get together, they’re never around. They’re always on holiday or have prior commitments. They don’t respond to emails that ask for their attendance. They may as well be a ghost.
Trustees with an opinion on everything
Not as forceful as the trustees drunk on power, these trustees don’t throw their weight around outside of trustee meetings; however, said meetings are always a chore because they feel they must have an opinion on absolutely everything that’s discussed – and it’s usually an opposing one to anything suggested. These trustees feel that constantly voicing an opinion demonstrates their commitment, that it shows they’re involved, even though, in reality, It just makes trustee meetings feel arduous and slows down any decision-making.
Trustees with no opinion
The flipside of the above: trustees who may as well not be there for all they contribute. This isn’t a terrible crime, though these trustees tend to be on the same boards as the power-hungry and the forever-opinionated, which means these perpetrators are able to continue with their overbearing behaviour. I’m not saying that trustees should stick their head above the parapet for no reason, but the quieter ones are usually those who have a real passion for the work the charity does, and every good cause relies on strong, fair-minded, positive, proactive people to help them effect change. These trustees need to realise their value and make themselves heard if they feel a proposal or motion is taking the charity away from its inherent commitments.
Trustees with no skills
Faith and good intentions are wonderful attributes to bring to any charity, but an effective trustee board needs a good range of relevant, practical skills and experience. Whilst services can always be outsourced, a healthy trustee board would have inherent skills that allow them to adequately manage and steer the charity towards sustainability and growth. Due diligence awareness and watertight accounting skills are requisite, as are people management skills and lived experience.
Before anyone gets in touch, I have no one person in mind for any of the ‘terrible trustees’ mentioned above. That said, I know they exist, and some people reading this article will likely be nodding their head with rueful acknowledgement if they’ve got an example on their own board.
If you believe one or more of your trustees is holding the organisation back or damaging its work and reputation, get in touch with me and we can look at how the charity can move forward. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0114 350 3354.