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Is your trustee board your charity’s appendix, head or heart?

Check your governance is in optimal health with the right balance of lived and professional experience

How does the balance of lived and professional experience on a board lead to good or poor governance? Can an imbalance in one, or the other, have a detrimental effect on a charity?

What about the board that isn’t even on this spectrum, so detached from the organisation that it’s an irrelevant appendage?

Is your board doing nothing?

I think of this as an “appendix board” – one that your organisation can live without. The chief executive or founder runs this show and the board is there solely because the law requires it.

The chief executive calls all of the shots and sees the board as a necessary nuisance. Trustees meet irregularly, nod things through and are unfamiliar with the organisation’s work.

They were recruited because the chief executive thought they would be compliant and their names would open doors.

Often, the appendix board is unaware of how disposable it is: and no charity should have one.

Not only is it legally dubious, but the organisation won’t reap the benefit of having a relevant mix of people to debate and challenge the ways to maximise the charity’s impact.

The board with a beating heart

By contrast, a board that is all heart understands the organisation’s cause inside out because they have lived it. These are the parents of children with eating disorders, the people who have been homeless and those who have suffered from mental ill health.

Charities are often founded because a group of people go through something difficult and find that the support they needed wasn’t there. So they set up their own organisation to provide it, and a “heart board” is born.

This board cares. They have their finger right on the pulse of what is needed. But decisions can be emotional and personal and can cause distress and tension that goes beyond a healthy level of debate.

It’s harder to be objective when you have skin in the game. It can be more painful to agree with fellow trustees on how to deliver the organisation’s vision, particularly if cuts or changes need to be made.

Although people with lived experience of course have other useful skills and knowledge, they weren’t matched to this board for those. So this board can have gaping holes in the experience needed to run the organisation effectively.

At some point, someone will point out that the board has skills or knowledge gaps. Then there is a risk of swinging too far in the other direction and becoming a “head board”.

The board that's more head than a hydra

When organisations grow and seek to “professionalise”, they sometimes lose touch with the critical expertise of what it’s like to live through the issues they seek to tackle.

An exclusively “head” board prides itself on its commercial acumen, clear thinking and efficiency, and has an impressive array of professional skills and experience.

But – and this is a big but – trustees have not personally lived through the issues the organisation is seeking to tackle.

This is the drug and alcohol addiction charity where nobody on the board has had a drug or alcohol addiction. The criminal justice organisation where none of the trustees have ever had a conviction. The youth club where everyone is aged over 40. The international charity with an entirely white European board.

Striking the right balance

I wish I was exaggerating, or that this was unusual, but it’s not.

It can lead to duff decisions, giving rise to inappropriate or inaccessible services or campaigns.

At the root of this is a failure to understand that for charities, mission and impact must be front and centre. We shouldn’t take a particular decision solely because it will make money or save money, or be more efficient, or look good.

If your organisation doesn’t have arguably the most important expertise on its board - lived experience of its cause - it can’t possibly deliver maximum impact.

The ideal board would likely have a combination of heart and head.

We must have the skills, knowledge and experience that support our ambitious organisations to deliver maximum impact and real change.

But “experience” must include lived, personal experience of the issues we’re trying to tackle.

The challenge is that when we do have lived experience on our boards, it is undervalued, as I have previously written.

What is clear to me is that the head must never be allowed to rule the heart.

This article first appeared in Third Sector. Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting on Board

Photo by Jopwell from Pexels


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