Managing Trustees Post Kids Company

By Bernard Clarke, Know and Do Ltd / 0161 2804567 / @berneeclarke /

Much has been said and written about charity governance since the high-profile demise of Kids Company. Sadly, the media has been able to find too many other examples of the poor leadership, financial management and governance of charities recently. Despite being so unrepresentative of the large, diverse and hardworking charity sector, these headlines have made Trustees nervous; and it is CEOs who feel the impact of this fear.

In response, Know and Do Limited were asked by ACEVO to facilitate discussions at recent CEO forums in London and Manchester. We shared tools, ideas and examples CEOs could use to better support their Trustees. Proactive planning in this situation is crucial to ensuring a Board maintains the right balance of strategic inspiration with appropriate scrutiny, and does not tip into autocratic leadership or management through fear.

Being a CEO is a lonely role. You spin lots of plates and make ‘magic’ happen from limited resources, time, people and money, all whilst under constant internal and external scrutiny! You are often the main conduit to communicate between operational issues, management plans and strategic frameworks. Trustees expect you to fulfil their wishes, whilst staff may want you to keep Trustees away from their work!

There are plenty of resources available to show Boards how they should behave (e.g. NCVO’s code of governance or the Institute of Directors Code of Conduct) but few resources for CEOs to assess the performance of Trustees.  Boards themselves are also the highest power in a charity and so can regulate the level of assessment they endure. Added to this there are also volunteers who can leave with no nor have I come across many volunteer Trustees who have embraced individual performance reviews. Attendees at the ACEVO forums shared a range of experiences of working with past and present Boards of Trustees. From superb partnerships between staff and Trustees, through to horror stories of “group un-think”, forgetfulness, interference and rudeness! So, the question remains: How do you build an open, productive working relationship with a group of volunteers who are essentially “your boss”?

Much of the conversations in the forums focused on the role of the Chair. If they have the ‘right’ qualities, CEOs felt the Trustees as a group would too. What the right qualities are is a variable factor, as a good Chair will build rapport and understanding with a CEO but equally must at times challenge or question motives in-depth. Expecting such a high performing Chair is also asking much of a volunteer who will have their own work and personal commitments around which they juggle the role.

To help CEOs, my colleagues and I have assess published good practice, drawn on observations and reflected on experience, in order to produce a tool to assess Board Performance: The ‘Board Leadership Wheel’ (See figure 1; you can also download the tool for free). It is designed to encourage assessment from a variety of views – the Trustees, CEO and other staff – so a range of perspectives can be compared. Collating the answers produces a visual map of the strengths and weaknesses in a charity’s governance.

Fig. 1: The Board Leadership Wheel


The eight questions ask for subjective views of different elements of Trustee leadership, as rarely is there a clear and objective indicator for the crucial issues that matter. For instance, Trustees can usually find a way to make decisions – even if the decision is to put a key decision on hold! – but is it a “wise” decision? That is a loaded term, deliberately inserted, to make a CEO think about how Trustees use the knowledge of past activities (e.g. reports, presentations, minutes, etc.) shown to them to make decisions with suitable foresight about the future. This is a tall order in current climates, with unprecedented changes in resourcing charities, the long-term austerity in public finances and relentless demand for ‘more for less’.

In the Manchester and London forums, the CEOs in attendance completed their own assessment wheel; scoring for each issue how they felt that their Board is operating (0 represents the worst possible performance and 10 represents perfection!). Then they began to unpick what imbalances the results showed in the actions and attitudes of their Trustees. The ACEVO members left the session ready to share this with their staff, colleagues and Trustees. The wheel can be used a tool to assess the different perspectives on the performance of the Board and agree priorities / actions to address the results. To attain open feedback and collect views independently, neutral third parties are often employed to support the process. The wheel can then be repeated periodically (e.g. annually) to assess change.

We would encourage CEOs to find a tool, like the wheel, that their Trustees will agree to use to assess performance and a process that allows perspectives but also creates a demand for action. Because Boards of Trustees are ultimately a governance team – albeit a team of volunteers – and they will only develop as a team if deliberate action is taken, i.e. to embed new members, shape the teams’ operations, promote good habits and keep seeking improvements in performance. After all, just like any team they need to form, storm, norm, perform and then reform as changes occur.

Much more was said in these forums, e.g.  from looking at one’s own self-development as a CEO; sharing honest critique of communication styles; and, being true to values and mission. It was noted that no one person holds the sway in these issues because the CEO works in partnership with staff, volunteers and volunteer Trustees. Yet we agreed that as the senior officer, the CEOs are one key constant with authority, who can galvanise positive change and ‘manage’ their Boards without dominating or controlling.

At Know and Do we specialise in the analysing and assessing these leadership dynamics. More importantly, we focus on finding the right actions for a charity to take to improve their performance. Such discussions are fascinating and each charity must find its own way to learn and develop. ACEVO’s CEO forums are crucial places of support for busy CEOs. The honest CEO discussions of the type we had in Manchester and London builds support from peers, which will be invaluable the next time you are wondering what to do with your Trustees!

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