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Anonymous story: My Trustee Board Is Holding Back My Charity

Mita Desai

10 November 2020

Hearing the stories and learning from the experiences of young people is one of the most powerful tools we have to make change. However, we often hear stories that would expose those young people to undue risk of reprisal. So today we are sharing such a story anonymously. I interviewed a young person who works for an organisation and feels their trustee board is holding the potential of their charity back. Outside of their day job they also serve as a Young Trustee on other boards.

Q: To set the scene, could you share the current situation at your workplace and what the current demographic of your organisation's board is?

Anonymous: So the trustee board at my workplace is largely composed of very established legal academics and lawyers who have been the head of government departments or law firms, and senior judges, and it has been that way, I think, for over 60 years. The board, as a result its decision-making is always on the more cautious side. However members of the staff team and I in particular would like them to push the boat out and really show the organization's values in the sorts of decisions they make.

Q: Has there been any work towards having a board that is more representative of the community they serve?

Anonymous: Other members of the staff team have suggested that we have greater staff representation at our trustee board level. Presently that operates in the form of a sole staff representative who is involved in the board meetings. That itself has been constantly resisted. That fight, I believe, went on for three years until they actually did commit to have the representative of the staff team attend the trustee board meetings. The staff representative had been given this title and additional responsibility, however it feels that they are not given due weight in those meetings.

The biggest example of the trustee board being unable to empathise with staff resulted this summer when, in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, the staff said we'd like to see the organization show how it feels about racial equality and injustice, and essentially we did not see an immediate response. We weren't happy with that lack of prominence, so we pushed the organisation to say how we feel about this issue. And upon being pressed, staff management empowered us to start putting together a policy in the area and equality and inclusion

We worked first as a group of four, and then as a group of 13, and then in consultation with the whole staff team, to put this policy together. And in spite of all of the work that had gone into it, I'm talking probably hundreds of hours of staff time in what was probably the most consultative document that had been put to the trustee board, it was rejected. It was rejected on the basis that it included language that they thought was too politically charged, that they thought was very vague, and in essence, that meant another three months, I believe, of quite extensive work. This was on top of all of our existing duties, so it was very much done at personal expense, and we became quite frustrated that we felt the organisation was pursuing delay tactics rather than acting in good faith to try to improve the policy.

The first rejection of this came from the trustee board in June, what we then found was the second rejection would take place at a trustee board meeting in September. Again, where our trustees seemed to be nitpicking and focusing on very minor details. What I would have done and indeed what I have done as a chair of a board of trustees in the past where I have had issues with the detailed wording of a policy, but supported it in principle, is to have said to my trustee board, "Let's accept this policy and the financial repercussions of it, the agreed final wording over email, after the staff have had the opportunity to make revisions." We got no such respect from our trustee board, who instead gave very vague criticism, sent the policy away. And, in my view as a black member of staff and an activist, this was tone deaf and insensitive in the context of how difficult it has to be a black person in 2020.

So the policy at present has been considered by my sub group over the last few weeks, as we have attempted to address some of the issues that trustees raised around quotas for ethnic minority staff, that they want it to be very low in comparison to things like the Parker Review, which stated that boards are stronger as a result of ethnic minority participation. And this is but one of a series of stories I could pose about how a trustee board which is narrowly composed, looking at a particular profession to the exclusion of others is unable to adjust to the world around it and unable to gauge very risks, really holds an organization back.

Q: Has there been any progress?

Anonymous: One of the things that I have been partially successful in trying to bring this trustee board up-to-date is having them think about is recruitment. Instead of having this cabal of old boys working together, having a chat about trustee vacancies and then hiring from within their network, actually going out to the wider world to see what a package of skills can be brought to the group.

So over the summer, working with the Director and the Chair of the board of trustees, I've got them to agree in principle to the next recruitment round featuring a subset of trustees who are advertised to the world at large through our website and through recruiters, hopefully using things like Reach and Women on Boards to be able to get a more diverse group of trustees than we've previously seen. That is marginal progress, but I think it will make a difference, both in the short and long term, to the quality of the governance of the organization.

Q: Thank you for sharing that. It was really hard to hear from my perspective, So I don't know how it feels to go through that and be affected by that. What do you think is the biggest impact of working in an environment where your board has such a closed mindset?

Anonymous: Yeah, I think it's very difficult to know what is an acceptable and challenging goal to set as a member of a staff team when your board thinks so cautiously. One of the things that I have been tasked with doing is reaching out to the public and young people as new audiences for our work, but when the organization thinks in such a conservative way, it really makes me question how I'm going to go about that mission. I'll give an example, there is a project that I'm setting up which has a particular word in its name. This word is quite similar to the word campaigner, and I was told to remove that synonym of campaigner and make it something that was in essence more about being a good volunteer rather than being a campaigner who's critical of policy, who's recommending changes to law and the way resources are handed out in order to make the world a better place. That's just one example of how that really narrow governance perspective limits what I'm able to do. So I'll say that the first impact is really creating a chilling effect for members of the staff team who want to do interesting and innovative things.

The second impact is related, but distinct. It holds the organisation back because it limits the realm of what is possible to what is known within the mindset of the board, which is itself drawn from such a narrow section of the world that it can't really think of really engaging new projects and alternatives. One of the things my organisation is trying to do is to develop new international markets and interesting programmes, and I think the people who aren't on the board, the social media consultants, the people who have had interesting careers in the retail sector who often have to come up with really cool packages to sell new products, those people could have made a really significant, positive difference to the way that those new offers are created in our organisation. But without them, I fear that groupthink again will set in and really bad ideas would be given too much time and attention, which I think is one of the things I've seen. So being restricted in the things you want to do, impact number one, and having really unambitious "dad joke" style offers rather than things that are cutting edge I think are the two biggest impacts of a board that is too narrowly construed around a particular age demographic, ethnicity, and class.

Q: If you could wave a magic wand and your board could listen to 3 pieces of advice to make positive change, what would they be?

Anonymous: I think the first thing is very much the mission of this movement. It is getting a diversity of life experience around the table in order to enable you to deal with what is a fairly difficult operating context for a charity. How do you deal with rapidly decreasing trust in the charity sector as a result of scandals? How do you make sure all of your beneficiaries are still able to benefit in the age of COVID? What do you do when there's diminishing support from the government for your services?

I think the way that you can best spot opportunities is, again, by having the young people, and the person with the disability, the person from a black and minority ethnic environment community who will be privy to funding pots, opportunities, grants that you will not have seen from your ivory tower. Diversity around the table, I think, is the big one.

The second thing is to critically review your practice. One of the things that I've implemented as a former chair of a board of trustees and something that's worked quite well on a board I'm currently on is having a feedback form that assesses the board's level of scrutiny. So that might look like, at the end of a meeting, having a questionnaire that you fill out asking:

  • Did we focus on the big picture or did we go too closely into the minutiae  that is  more relevant for the staff team?
  • Did we have all of the perspectives around the table so they're able to make the decisions that we were asked to make, or should we have pulled in additional expertise?

Critically reviewing your practice, I think, is really key to having an effective trustee board.

The third is to really think about what outcomes and impact mean for your beneficiaries, and if you're actually still driving the organisation towards those goals. In the role that I keep talking about as chair of a board, I really came to quite a difficult situation where, upon getting external help from a governance consultant, we found that our services weren't delivering for our beneficiaries. We had lost income and our staff structure was completely awry from what our beneficiaries were expecting from us. We then had to do a whole organisational transformation exercise that involved quite a lot of difficulty around staff employment just so we could get the organisation back on track.

And I think people would often moan about how much it costs to get governance consultancy in to have interim change directors, et cetera, but in my experience, these sorts of exercises are often worth it and they often help you to look at the organisation for what it is rather than what you think it is, as either an executive staff team member or a trustee. So finding a way to be able to assess what you're currently doing and making sure that it is what you've told the charity commission is what you do, I think, is a really important thing to be able to reflect on and evaluate from time to time so you can look at it in the cold light of day.

So that's it, diversity around the table, reviewing your practice and making sure that you're able to gauge risk, are just three biggest pieces of best practice and advice I'd pass on.

Thank you very much for sharing all of this, I hope this will inspire others to take action.

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