The Charity Commission in its various publications comments that trustees are responsible for running a charity, but with typical boards meeting for a couple of hours every quarter or so how realistic is this? In truth the detailed running of all but the smallest charities will be delegated to senior employees and committees, so although the board may be ultimately responsible and have the legal responsibility, they cannot have the ability to directly implement or ensure compliance. This issues lies at the heart of the paradox of trustee boards and charities.
As an unpaid role, a trustee is most likely to have signed up because they want to put something back into society or their local community. There are no qualifications to be a trustee; you take on your burden of responsibility often with the minimum amount of induction and set off to do your best. Research suggests that trustees often retreat into their personal comfort zones, which often means doing small operational things rather than working on their crucial strategic role. In practice this can lead to meddling in operational detail that has been delegated to staff. Worse are the meetings that continually get bogged down in the minutia and give scant regard for the important big picture issues.
A good board can be a launch pad for a charity while a poor board has the power to destroy it. This process may take time but unless positive steps are taken the corrosive effect is likely to be fatal.
While there rarely is a right answer, charities need effective boards as never before. Because charities can be change averse, the best way forward is to often work with a change agent, someone who can foster evolutionary change before something far less pleasant forces the issue.
Devon Square Partners Ltd was set up by Chartered Accountant Michael White in 2002 to provide the charity sector with a practical and business outlook on what organisations do and how they do it. You can visit the website here http://www.devonsquarepartners.co.uk/.