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What constitutes an awful trustee?

And how can we help ourselves and our fellow trustees to be better?

Racism. Bullying. Harassment. Fraud. Some trustee behaviour is incontrovertibly awful; some is also criminal.

But a whole range of behaviour can be seen as awful by others, and normal or unavoidable by the perpetrator.

You think a fellow trustee is being aggressive; they think they’re standing up for what’s right. You think a trustee is being rude to staff; they think they’re providing constructive challenge. You’ve noticed that a trustee is quiet; they’re sick of being spoken over.

And so it goes.

None of us is immune to being awful. I’m a firm believer that we’ve all got an inner prat.

That time we pointed out to the chief executive that they’d spelled “accommodation” wrong in a board paper (prat). Or when we cut across another trustee because we couldn’t wait to make our point (mega prat).

So, how can we help ourselves and our fellow trustees to be less awful?

1. Recruit well and set expectations early. Recruit genuinely useful trustees who are passionate about the mission and be crystal clear with them about the expectations of them.

2. Ask yourself whether you’re an effective trustee. How would you know? Most awful trustees are unconsciously incompetent. What does the organisation need in place so that individual trustees, and the board as a whole, can assess whether they are doing a good job? Use annual trustee reviews, board appraisals and external assessments.

3. Agree a trustees’ code of conduct. There is no objective definition of “awful”, so we need to agree what our definition of good is. Outline the positive behaviours the trustees agree to adhere to (respectful debate, proper preparation…) and include what will happen if a trustee breaches the code.

4. Use trustee terms rigorously. Normalise trustees leaving regularly and gracefully. A whole board of longstanding trustees can become stuck in the mud.

5. Nip off-piste trustee behaviour in the bud. Chairs: this one is for you. It’s much easier to have a polite conversation when something happens for the first or second time, rather than leaving it until it is toe-curlingly awful. Which brings us to the thorny issue of the chair themselves being the source of the problem. Talk to other trustees and staff. Are they feeling the same? Talk to the chair if no one else will. Make sure your trustees’ code of conduct includes expectations of the chair.

6. Check in with trustees and staff who are on the receiving end of bad behaviour. Are they OK? Then take action. Your sympathy is no use to them if you’re not doing anything about the root cause.

7. Talk to badly behaved trustees. Are they OK? They might have something tricky going on in their non-trustee life. Or their behaviour might be a reaction to their treatment by another trustee. Or perhaps they’re cross that others aren’t pulling their weight. Or they might simply not understand what their remit is.

8. Model good behaviour yourself on the board. If other trustees are ineffective, model effective behaviour.

9. Organise trustee training. One of the major causes of ineffective trusteeship, particularly in relation to staff, is trustees not really understanding what their role is. Organise a refresher on your responsibilities.

10. Reinvigorate trustees about the mission. Have them chat with service users, attend awards, read positive feedback, reaffirm your strategy. Show them what impact their contribution is having. People volunteer to feel fulfilled, not to be miserable.

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting On Board. This article originally appeared in Third Sector.

Worried you're a bit awful? Fear not, we have a host of free webinars to help make you become the rounded trustee you deserve to be. Explore the options here.

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