Boardroom meeting with photo taken looking through a glass wall, with male and female colleagues sitting inside

Effective charities need effective boards, says Lords report

Until recently I would have probably found the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Charities report on strengthening the charitable sector a bit dreary. But having lately taken on greater responsibility for governance matters at the Science Council, as well as embarking on a corporate governance course, I found the report a rather interesting read. With 100 conclusions and recommendations it covers a lot of ground. Here are three of the most interesting areas covered:  

Governance

“Robust governance requires good structures, processes and behaviours…strategy and foresight as well as a culture of scrutiny, support and challenge.”

I don’t think that many would say that this is a particularly controversial statement. Like any business, charity employees most likely take their behavioural cues from those at the top of the organisation. If the board and senior management promote a culture of openness, honesty and debate then this is likely to permeate down the organisation. The board of a charity should set its values and standards and communicate to the executive their expectations on meeting these values and standards. I would also advocate including these on the charity’s website. The Science Council has adopted the following values: Inclusive, Balanced, Informed, Positive, Collaborative.

Trustee skills and training

“Training and development are essential for charity trustees in order for the sector to work effectively”

The report recommends that charities regularly undertake board skills audits, annually for larger charities, to ensure they have the necessary skills and expertise to perform their functions. Indeed. Ongoing training and upskilling is a common occurrence for staff in many organisations, be they charitable or otherwise, so why should trustees be any different?

How often, for example, did the trustees of recently folded charities scrutinise the financial reports presented to them? Did they feel confident asking questions, or were they assured by the charismatic Treasurer or Chair that there was nothing to worry about? Perhaps fewer charities would have to close if trustees were provided with introductory financial training during their induction, and importantly regular refresher training provided throughout their tenure.

As the report infers, training can be a time-consuming and costly exercise. It recommends that the sector’s infrastructure bodies have a greater leadership role to play in reviewing current training opportunities, and identifying possible gaps in provision, particularly for small charities. This seems to be a sensible approach. I wonder too whether they could also provide a ‘training exchange’ platform where boards can arrange to exchange experts, either from their boards or staff, to provide free (or low-cost) training.

Board diversity and turnover

“Trustee diversity is important, as boards with a range of skills, experiences, ages and backgrounds are likely to lead to better governance.”

The report recognises that boards with a range of skills, experiences, ages and backgrounds are more likely to lead to better governance. The need for board diversity is now well recognised in the UK. Diversity can be an important driver of board effectiveness by bringing together a breadth of perspectives and experience among trustees, reducing the tendency for board to slip into a ‘group think’ mind-set. It is also an important factor in a charity being accountable to those it serves.

The Science Council has recently agreed to move to a predominantly skills-based board, enabling the board to embrace people from outside science, of different ages, genders and backgrounds, and with expertise in and from areas such as marketing, governance, the legal profession, the civil service, public affairs, as well as the professional body sector.

Nominations for this year’s trustee elections are now open. If you are interested in the opportunity to play a leading role in assuring the competence and conduct of scientists then we would like to hear from you. Please contact Oli O’Hanlon for more information.

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