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How do we keep trustees fully engaged?

Some behave differently in their trustee lives than they ever would in any paid role



Trustees sometimes behave differently in their day jobs than they do in the boardroom.


This can be to the detriment of the organisation they serve. Without a firm sense of role and purpose, trustees turn up in body but leave their brains (and therefore some of the impact they could be having) at the door.


Dora is at work. She is at an important meeting which she has prepared for meticulously. She wouldn’t dream of being late: it would reflect badly on her and it’s disrespectful to colleagues.


Dora is in a trustee meeting. She arrived 15 minutes late and hasn’t read the papers beyond a quick flick through.


Mike is at work. His phone rings in a meeting. He glances at it to check it isn’t the school. It isn’t. So he rejects the call and keeps his phone on silent.


Mike is in a trustee meeting. He takes a call from his wife asking what the kids should have for tea. He also checks his emails and replies to a couple of texts during the meeting. That is when he’s not having a sneaky power nap. It has been a long day.


Lois is at work. She is talking through some important proposals with colleagues. She has thought long and hard about the options. She listens intently to what colleagues have to say and suggests that more data collection and research is needed before a decision is taken.


Lois is in a trustee meeting. The chief executive is presenting some options about the charity’s future direction. This is the first time Lois has really thought about it. She thinks the chief executive must know best and is happy to back the option they recommend.


Sami is at work. He is administering medication to a patient. It’s important that he gets the doses correct and he double checks them scrupulously.


Sami is in a trustee meeting. It gets to the budget. He switches off. He’s sure the treasurer must have it covered and numbers aren’t his thing.


It’s not every trustee in every board, but the above isn’t far-fetched. These are everyday scenarios of trustees behaving differently in their trustee lives than in their professional lives.


Why might this be and what can we do about it?


Trustees don’t fully understand their responsibilities. We should give full, joyous inductions lasting six to nine months and offer training and development as standard to all trustees. As well as formal training this might include, for example, spending time with staff, meeting people expert in the charity’s field (including people with lived experience of what the charity is tackling), and meeting trustees from other organisations.


Trustees sometimes misconstrue their voluntary trustee role as less serious than a paid role. Make it clear from the point of recruitment that being a trustee isn’t something you can do half-heartedly (but try to do that without making it sound dull as dishwater or scary as hell).


Trustees don’t know how to behave. Have your trustees develop a trustees’ code of conduct together, particularly if things are currently going well. Don’t wait until things go pear-shaped before you try to document what effective, constructive behaviour looks like.


Trustees have lost sight of, or were never very connected to, what the organisation is trying to achieve. Recruit for passion as well as usefulness, then keep trustees tapped into the organisation’s jubilant successes and meaty (strategic) challenges.


Chairs aren’t sure how to engage their fellow trustees. And if chairs are disengaged themselves, the problem is multiplied. Chairs, connect with your peers via the Association of Chairs, move on if you’ve lost your passion for leading the charity, and keep the board refreshed to bring in new skills and experience as needed. While we’re talking about being “refreshed”, the odd beverage together might help, too.

Trustees, we are all guilty of this questionable behaviour to a greater or lesser extent. Time to sit up and pay attention to the road ahead.


Penny Wilson is Getting on Board's chief executive. You can find out more about Getting on Board's brilliant and free Trustee Learning Programme here .


This article first appeared in Third Sector Magazine


Image by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.

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