18th March 2024Charity trustee roundtable: Supporting chairs and trustees through challenging times

At our recent charity trustee roundtable, we were joined by Joe Saxton, Chair of the Association of Chairs, who led the discussion. The key points are below.

At the Association of Chairs, one area which has been considered is how boards work and how they can be most effective; this includes challenging the things which boards do because they’ve always done them. The findings are interesting; there is a huge architecture of behaviour that isn’t necessarily effective. This includes risk registers, and whether a risk register has ever been useful for anyone, board papers and whether we can present board papers in a more effective way, and finally board meetings in real life or on-line.

Risk registers

With risk registers there always seems to be a need for lots of colours, assessment of how likely it is that the risk will happen, how bad it will be if it does happen, and a whole list of the impact. There is little doubt that there was a single risk register that predicted Covid, nor many risk registers that predicted the cost of living crisis, but more and more items are added to the risk register, and, as a trustee and as a chair, what do we actually do with this information? If one thing is so important, why isn’t it on a different part of the agenda that we can actually do something about? Because of this, risk registers tend to not be a particularly helpful way of looking at things. If they are such a good idea, why don’t the senior management team use them? If they are so important, perhaps we could do them in a different way, perhaps we could look at where we could be investing to make things go better.

They do work well though when they are used by management; focusing on the risks within plans, budgets, and the objectives of the organisation. They then help focus management towards addressing things that could potentially throw the organisation off track. Thus with a cycle of reviewing risk registers, they can then help organisations focus on achieving objectives.

Three key things to make risk registers more effective

1. Ensure the register is fully embedded with the executive management with areas of responsibility allocated for particular risks. They should then be responsible for making sure that those risks are addressed and mitigated as part of day to day activity and that there is a regular review cycle.

2. Less is more. You have to be quite brutal and combine risks or delete them when they are no longer relevant.

3. Have a conversation at the board level about your risk tolerance or risk appetite ie what level of risk would be acceptable for each of the risk categories. Then report the risks to the board which are outside the tolerance together with what is being done about them.

Board packs

The issue of very long board packs is very challenging. When you are looking at a group of trustees, especially in terms of diversity and those who are working and have day jobs, it is a huge ask to take out time, and possibly come to a physical meeting, having read through the whole pack. If you haven’t read the pack there is the risk of the perennial grumble of ‘you don’t even look at your papers’, which may have arrived only a week ahead of time. A 100 page pack is quite a lot of information but you often see far bigger which is a colossal challenge.

There must be a better way for trustees to receive this information. Rather than putting it all into one integrated pack, some organisations send papers out in stages, so that people can get some of the papers beforehand.

You want a broad range of people on a board and the bar that you need to pass to be on a board is to be happy having to read 100+ page board packs. That means that people have got to have the time, they’ve got to understand all the board papers and they need to have a job which allows them to have the free time to make it happen. So, one of the dangers of longer, more technical, more involved board packs is that it skews towards people with more time, with particular skills, and less on people who are saying ‘I have a lot to contribute but actually, I don’t have a background in this type of information’.

100+ page board papers are a symptom of a problem and the problem is not perhaps using your agenda time to maximum effect. So, one of the things to do is have a section which is: where are we making a big decision? Every trustee meeting should at least have some big, chunky issues that are to be discussed. The danger is that you have an agenda which covers 26 issues, you need to get through all of them, you need approval for this, we need you to know about everything, and we’re going to whizz through each one.

The practical things that could be done include being very clear about what you are asking of the committee members or the board members. So is this for information? Is this for discussion? Or is this for a decision, and that any paper that goes in support of that needs to support that objective. That helps because it means that the papers are a little bit more focused on what is being requested. The second suggestion is that anything which is for information should not go in the main pack, it goes into a separate pack, which is the ‘for information’ pack, which you can dive into if you if you want to do so but you don’t have to read it. The main pack is the information which you have to read because it is either related to a decision or a discussion point. That discipline helps; it helps slim down the papers and the papers are reduced to under 100 pages.

Meetings in person or online?

Board meetings at the Association of Chairs have moved to alternating between in person and online. Timings have changed to later in the afternoon to help those attending as it gives them time to travel, and those in person are slightly longer to give more time to get to know each other. There are boards where the trustees barely know each other because they only ever appear online for the meeting, and then maybe they get together in person for the annual away day. Of course, there are huge positives to meeting on online; you can be more flexible and you can geographically be much more diverse and dispersed. But, conversely, the team ability of a board that only ever meets virtually is greatly diminished as you don’t have the same sense of interaction which you gain where you meet in real life and you get to know and understand each other. As an example, at a recent in-person workshop for a board, time was spent to learn about each other; this gave new perspectives. You also have the opportunity to chat to each other during teas and coffees before or after the session. There is a definite sense of finding a balance that works for your board.

There also seems to be a difference between the approach of the commercial sector and the charity sector with the commercial sector being more likely to have policies about when people should be in the office. That has a number of implications, one of which is you then begin to recruit people who are all over the country, geographically, so it is great for spreading out opportunities but it also means there is absolutely no going back; you can’t then say, a year down the line, ‘you know what, we’ve changed our minds’ because you’ve got people geographically dispersed already. But the reality isthat generally relationships are more likely to be better and more quickly formed if you see people face to face and outside of formal meetings; you have some sense of who they are, you probably produce better decisions, better interactions, better results and so on.

The two are completely opposing forces; you get a number of benefits if things are online, and you get a number of benefits if people are in the room. Probably one of the things we should be saying is if someone’s taking the trouble to come over from Ireland, or someone’s coming down from Cumbria, we make a bigger deal of it, we make sure we have time for lunch, or we make sure we go out and have a meal afterwards and we do a longer session. Even though they could do it as a day trip, we say come for a meal, stay the night, because then that twice a year becomes real social capital, a real emotional development type activity, and the meetings in between we can get away with doing virtually because we are building up that team bonding and team collaboration on the other occasions.

Our next Charity Trustees’ roundtable will be taking place at 9am on Wednesday 1 May 2024 where we will be joined by Zoe Amar discussing Artificial Intelligence; key risks and opportunities. Contact Louise Hughes: lhughes@hwfisher.co.uk to reserve your place.

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