Blurred boundaries

The line between exec and non-exec responsibilities isn’t always clear. But a recent discussion between a number of board members and senior leaders shines a light on some grey areas, writes Vicky Browning, CEO of ACEVO

According to reports from some ACEVO members, the fall-out from Kids Company is making itself felt in a changing relationship between executive teams and their boards.

The additional pressure and responsibility trustees are experiencing have meant boards are starting to move away from their traditional roles of strategy, scrutiny and support to becoming more like inspectors.

It’s not news that the line between where trustee responsibility stops and officer responsibility starts (and vice versa) can be more art than science. But when non-execs consistently start crossing that line, the CEO needs to take action.

So we thought it would be interesting to gather a group of board members and senior leaders to explore a small number of fictional (but possible) scenarios where the dividing line might be open to question, to examine how best to determine the respective roles of trustees and officers.

Earlier this year, ACEVO, supported by our strategic corporate partner CCLA, convened a meeting of the chief executive, chair, financial director and treasurer of four large, national UK charities to discuss four scenarios.

The fictional scenarios range from the respective roles of the executive team and trustees in driving through difficult and unwelcome changes within the organisation, to handling trustees’ personal views of the performance of senior executives. Other areas explored include the role of the CEO in tackling a chair who frequently acts alone rather than in consensus with their board, and how to deal with a trustee who wants to commission an independent review of an aspect of the charity’s operational effectiveness.

A number of consistent principles for CEO/board decision-making arose from our discussion of these four scenarios. The paper gives a fuller picture of the discussions themselves, but the principles that arose from the exchanges are:

  • Build resilience in peace time – invest in good recruitment, relationships and communication
  • Authenticity breeds respect – ensure all leaders have genuine understanding and empathy with organisational aims
  • Address both head and heart – gain proper balance by ensuring we know and see services for ourselves before considering the rationale for a decision
  • Put process before personalities – ensure good processes are in place
  • Always triangulate – bring in a third party. Never allow things to be about one view against another

We hope the outcome of the discussion, presented in this paper, gives a wider understanding of how a number of board members and senior leaders approach such matters. And remember: if you would like to talk through any issues like this, or need support with problem solving with your board, please contact ACEVO’s governance helpline.

Please note the paper is only available to download by ACEVO members.

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