Chairs on Charities

In the final of our series arising from hosting focus groups of Charity CEOs and Charity Chairs, the Chairs consider the evolving nature of the sector, and what this means for Charities and their Boards.


The 7 Chairs in our recent focus group felt that charities need to have a collective voice when dealing with perceptions of the sector. “There’s a political dimension to this, and we need really adult conversations about the issues.  There are difficult conversations to be had, and we duck away from them at present, and maybe we need to stay together on this, and have the discussion together. There’s a need for strong leadership, to manage the political and public expectations of the charity sector”.  It was felt that representative bodies should push for more recognition of the sector and its work, both among funders and the public.

Skills needed to lead modern governance

There was discussion about the skills needed by board Chairs in leading modern governance.  It was felt that having difficult conversations, with the Chief Executive and with fellow board members, requires particular leadership skills, and needs practice.  “Healthy tension needs to become the norm in the boardroom, and we need to welcome constructive disagreement, rather than shy away from it”. There was discussion about the key role of the Chair in leading great meetings.

Resilience among board members was seen as vital to a strong board, especially given the speed of change and the frequent challenges facing boards. Bringing together the commercial ethos required in the modern world with the more traditional charitable ethos was felt to be a priority. The Chairs felt it was essential that charities capture the best of both, and don’t lose the ‘heart’ while focusing on the ‘head’.

It was agreed that the Chair needs to know the ‘mind’ of the board, when there are many voices contributing, so that the board is seen by all its stakeholders to be unified, with clear authority.  It was noted that when making decisions, not every individual on the board has to agree, but every board member should feel heard before the decision is made.  “The Chair needs to spend time engaging with each board member, to know how they are feeling.  Although it takes time, it is really helpful in developing trust”.  Diversity among board members was regarded as an important feature of an effective board, ensuring that different ways of thinking, including ‘feminine intuition’ were recognised and appreciated!

Role of the board

In relation to the essential role of the board, those present felt that the main tasks were to lead the thinking on strategy (staying ‘in the helicopter’), and keep the charity nimble enough to be able to change direction quickly when needed.  An example was given from a successful American entrepreneur, who split up his business into smaller units every time it got to more than 300 people. Keeping charities small enough, flexible and innovative was seen as vital.

It was seen as essential that boards and chief executives think about what the future might hold, spot opportunities, invest in piloting new projects, and promote this to public sector funders. As one participant put it, “We can’t just keep doing what we did last year. It’s not just about delivering good services now, it’s about being the best”.

Entrepreneurial charities

This thinking was developed further as the Chairs discussed the need for charities to be entrepreneurial and innovative. “We need to get away from the dependency culture, and be truly independent” said one participant who highlighted the need for a culture of innovation among the board and staff teams, mirroring private enterprises.  “Thinking outside the box needs to be encouraged and rewarded these days”.

Many of those present felt that sometimes staff don’t understand the need for the change in culture. While the organisation may have started as a community based organisation, “We need to ensure we’re not feeling ‘less than’. What’s wrong with being commercial?”  The Chairs felt that the organisations which they represent are needed. “Government depends on the services of charities. We should be proud of what we do” said one who felt that charities can only really survive if they take a commercial approach. “There needs to be a good open public debate on this, with funders, politicians and other key stakeholders”. Another felt “We can’t be seen to be too ‘slick’ – we need to ensure we’re still working for the public benefit – it’s a question of balance”.  While the focus needs to be on delivering service, Chairs felt this needs to happen in a business-like way. “We need to manage our reputation, and maybe we should be doing that together”.

The days when ‘voluntary’ might have meant ‘amateur’ or ‘good enough’ are long gone.  “Only the best will do in the modern world” said one participant.  Commercial pressure, along with the need to ‘keep in with everybody’ means boards need to think carefully about how they position their organisations. Professionalisation is required by funders, and that means charities need strong leadership skills and business acumen.  ‘Hard working’ and ‘good hearted’ isn’t enough when funders and donors want to know that their money is being spent wisely and achieving results.

What’s your view?

Joy Allen, Leading Governance

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