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The charity sector structure is broken

Felicia Willow would like to see an end to the voluntary and unaccountable Board structure that forms the foundation of the charity sector.

I love this sector. It’s where I have spent the majority of my working life. I’ve led six organisations across seven leadership appointments, and I’ve supported countless charities on strategic planning, crisis management, reviews and much more. I’ve been the Vice-Chair of ActionAid UK, as well as a Trustee of two other charities.

This sector has my heart and my role as a consultant and interim CEO is focussed on helping to make it work.

So when I say that the structure is broken, I say it from a place of love.

There are thousands of great trustees out there. But, for the role to work, it requires huge effort, sensitivity, communication, learning and compromise.

And therein lies the rub.

A structure that works cannot rely on such intense individual effort to operate effectively.

Here’s why it’s not working:

Boards are inherently unequal because the system is unequal

Boards remain on average majority wealthy, older, white, male and middle class. Diversity standards mean we are trying to tweak a fundamentally unequal structure.

Inequality is built into the very fabric of the sector. Misguided Victorian ideals of the great and the good – aka the white and the wealthy – coming down from above and bestowing their wisdom upon the workers forms the basic concept of the Board. Voluntary Boards means that those in charge are often chosen not on experience or skills, but on networks and the ability to work for free. The trustee role requires trustees to be au fait with formal, white-collar meetings and certain ‘professional’ cultural and social rules. This is all highly exclusionary.

The voluntary nature of the role, combined with the promise of authority is skewed completely towards those with money and existing power and authority. It is a structure that perpetuates and embeds inequality and we’re not going to fix it by changing our recruitment processes.

Boards lack an adequate understanding of the charity sector

I’ve met hundreds of very impressive people sitting on boards. They are often at the absolute top of their fields, and such people are better at telling others what they know than they are at listening and learning. These people have never worked for a charity and most couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be a service user.

We need diverse skills to make charities succeed, but it must be underpinned by basic respect for the sector and for service users and supplemented by all trustees having had governance training. And, we need to make it practicable for those with lived experience to serve on boards, which means we have to abandon the prohibition on paying trustees. We need to stop doing things ‘for’ people, and starting doing things ‘with’ people.

There is no accountability for bad trustees

There is virtually nothing that can be done – and rarely is done – when trustees are out of line.

There are more than just a few bad apples spoiling the sector. Many trustees struggle with their role, overstep, breach charity rules or otherwise behave inappropriately. Bullying is rife – I can’t count how many CEOs I know who have been bullied by trustees while the rest of the board does nothing.

Whether it’s bullying, using the role to further their own career or financial interests, actively undermining the charity to further their personal views, behaving unprofessionally, being unwilling to be held to account, or otherwise failing to meet their governance duties, I see and hear about trustees breaching expected standards every single day.

For CEOs, there is absolutely nothing they can do if trustees themselves won’t take action. The Charity Commission will not take complaints from CEOs. That in itself is a massive failing on the part of our sector’s regulator that denies the ability of our leaders to resolve issues when they arise.

What should the structure look like?

I’m not the right person to ask.

Of course I have ideas and opinions, but I’m also a professional, university-educated middle class white woman who has not been excluded from the sector. I know enough to know that an effective solution that is truly inclusive needs to be centred on those who have not had my privileges, and I will support others however I can do to this.

I’d love to see more conversations held about a better way forward. I’d love to hear really ground-breaking ideas that could completely revolutionise the sector.

And, in the meantime, let’s all start to speak up more.

Let’s stop assuming that just because this is the ways things have been, that it can’t change.

Let’s not just celebrate our trustees, but let’s also be robust in upholding expectations of behaviour, effort and learning that they need to meet.

Let’s be more transparent and push for more accountability so that inappropriate behaviours can be aired and stopped.

Let’s start challenging some of the received wisdom about how things are supposed to work.

And let’s share our thoughts on how we can fix this broken, beautiful sector.

Felicia Willow is a charity consultant and interim CEO who has led six charities across seven leadership appointments. A former human rights lawyer, Felicia has also worked as an expert consultant to major organisations including the United Nations Development Programme, World Vision, UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration, Girlguiding UK and Addaction, as well as delivering a wide range of consultancy and interim leadership support for charities of all sizes based in the UK.

Her website is and she can be found on LinkedIn.

Image by Yan Krukau on Pexels



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