21st July 2023Debra Allcock Tyler – insights from a formidable force in the charity sector

Debra Allcock Tyler, a formidable force in the charity sector, joined us at our recent Charity Trustee Roundtable. Read on for a summary of her insights on boards and good governance.

Expectations of boards have changed, but it’s debatable as to whether behaviours have kept up in line with expectations. The expectation of boards now is that the board is much more engaged, in tune and active. Part of the problem is that very skilled and qualified people who join boards have no prior experience of being a trustee and will learn dysfunctional behaviour from others. Boards can be difficult to navigate when you are the non-executive. Despite the perception that trustees have all the power, being a trustee can make people feel extremely helpless. It can also be a challenge to tackle so many when there are a number of other people all with their own strong opinions.

Minimise paperwork and maximise information

Too many people believe that paperwork is information. Huge board packs full of numbers and reports showing what has been achieved very often go unread. Very often, information that demonstrates how a charity is performing gets lost in the detail.

It is important to minimise the paperwork and maximise the information. What do your trustees need to know? Financial information is a good example; we tend to give too much detail here, which many people don’t understand. and patterns are important and thus visuals are extremely important.

We need to get better at distinguishing what we must know, what’s helpful to know,, and what we’d like to know. Those things tend to get treated as equally important, but they’re not. It’s surprising how much time is spent in board meetings looking at the past, and how little time is spent talking about the future.

Driving a strong agenda

Board agendas can be a nightmare. Most main boards meet four times per year on average, for around 2-3 hours each time. This equates to around 12 hours per year total. What is the best use of that time? It’s not poring over last month’s management accounts and arguing about coffee spend.

Remember your agenda is supposed to be information; it’s not just a list of items. It should tell you whether it is a discussion, or purely information (e.g. a presentation on progress since the last meeting). This indicates the level of involvement expected from trustees.

Another tip is to avoid sections titled ‘for agreement’, as this suggests that anyone who disagrees must then change their mind – once someone has taken a position, it’s difficult to get them to do this. Instead, ask for ‘alignment’; using this term means that people don’t have to say that they’ve changed their mind, and instead can say that having listened to the discussion, they are prepared to accept the decision. Trustees are usually busy people thus having a section entitled ‘notes on the agenda for trustees’ is a great way of reminding trustees of key points of discussion when they refer back to it months later.

Lastly, many people struggle with names. Note names, job titles, company names etc, to make everyone feel more comfortable.

Driving higher engagement

People join boards for many reasons. Typically, there will be 1/3 who read all the papers, respond to all emails, and are fully engaged, 1/3 who skim the papers on the way to the meeting, and you have 1/3 who ‘wing it’ in the meeting. What can we do to make sure that everybody’s receiving the right level of information? You might find that doing presentations in meetings rather than sending papers in advance may be more beneficial. With a presentation, everyone is hearing the information at the same time and therefore the level of engagement should be more evenly spread.

We must also recognise that boards are not teams. We can’t treat them as teams because teams work together very regularly, they know each other well, and are working on the same projects. They’re a group of people who’ve come together to help govern the organisation.

Additionally, boards are often not honest with themselves about their own performance. We don’t really assess how well we’re doing. This is something that should always be considered.

Inclusion – walk the talk

Boards of trustees often find it difficult to discuss diversity and inclusion, other than to state that they are an inclusive organisation who are committed to equality. They don’t talk about anti-racism, or what inclusivity means. Boards often recruit senior directors of large companies, whereas someone equally bright and skilful with a slightly less demanding role may be better suited with less professional commitments.. Inclusion is not just about colour, gender, or sexuality. It’s also about socio-economic backgrounds, equal opportunities, and how hard it is to have those discussions.

Inclusion means changing your practices to make people feel welcome. Ask these questions: re we holding our meetings at the right time for parents or carers? Are we holding our meetings at times when people typically go to prayer?  We need to challenge our assumptions about what these terms mean and think about the broader world in which we live.

For trustee recruitment, a three-phase model can be adopted. The first phase involves the Chair and two or three trustees discussing what skills, experience and backgrounds they are looking for, and then advertising the role. The job description should emphasise that you will teach the candidate how to be a trustee – there is no need to already be experienced in this field. It’s important is that the candidate cares about your cause and/or has a particular interest in an area where you may feel you are lacking.

The second phase is that the candidates are shortlisted by another group of trustees, with all information around education, background, names etc redacted. During the third and final phase, the list of successful candidates is interviewed by a third group of trustees. This model will help ensure you minimise any unconscious bias, because at every stage, somebody else is looking at each individual from a different perspective.

Implementing a buddy-system

One of the most effective ways to teach a candidate to be a trustee is by adopting a 3-way buddy system. Every new trustee should be buddied up with an experienced trustee as well as a manager. During the first six months, regular meetings should be held to offer support and ensure questions can be asked. Culture isn’t taught, it’s experienced. It’s built up over time when you witness behaviours. Exposing new people as much as possible early on allows them to observe the way that you work.

Trustees are one part of the pie

We should always be asking whether our colleagues on our boards describe us as engaged, committed, interested and reliable? Are we positive, and forward thinking, and focussed on the future?

Traditionally, we think of charity structures as like a pyramid – e board of trustees at the top, the chief executive, the leadership team, all the way down to service users, clients, beneficiaries, and volunteers. A much better way of looking at it is thinking about it as a pie. One slice is the trustees, one is the leadership team, one is the volunteers etc.. This takes away a lot of those traditional hierarchical behaviours and thinking that gets in the way of really looking at the future and moving forward. Trustees are just one part of the pie, not the top of a pyramid – you need all parts in order to make a complete pie.

Our next Charity Trustees’ roundtable will be taking place at 9am on Wednesday 27 September 2023 where we will be joined by Kai Adams, Managing Partner from Green Park discussing the skills and experience mix for Boards.

Contact Louise Hughes to reserve your place.

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