Troubleshooting a tired or difficult board of trustees

Governance
Troubleshooting a tired or difficult board of trustees

I have been lucky enough to work with – and on – some good boards in the voluntary and community sector.  That may surprise you, given that volunteer trustees generally come in for a lot of flak – not least from charity CEOs and senior managers.  The thing is, good boards don’t happen overnight. You have to start out by judging what each and every trustee around the table offers.  Not just in terms of skills, but also personality and listening skills.  It’s worth taking your time to do this well.  As a capable CEO, it should be possible to turn around a tired and even difficult board if that’s what you have inherited. 

What’s the problem with volunteer trustees?

Do any of the following complaints sound familiar? They come from senior managers responding to an article in The Guardian a while ago entitled, ’As a charity boss, I despair of Victorian attitudes ruining our good work’. 

“Trustees are the most stressful part of my job…they seem to see their role as almost exclusively to challenge, without recognition that they are not professionals and therefore lack knowledge of the field of activity.”

 

“Despite my previous attempts to up-skill the board by identifying training, they have not attended anything. They acknowledge that they know very little about the development and running of an organisation but do little in between trustee meetings to change this.”

 

“…nothing was good enough for the trustees, even though many of them could not read a balance sheet, did not contribute to the strategic direction of the charity and, most worryingly of all, did not have any real interest in the work of the charity.”

 

“Too-powerful trustees are a nightmare!…I feel the current system (of volunteer trustees) is holding back the charity sector massively, at a time when its work has never been more needed.”

 

What makes a good charity board?

A board has the formal responsibility for the governance of a charity. In other words, its role is to ensure that the charity is effectively and properly run; also that it is meeting its overall purposes as set out in its governing document. Because charities come in all sizes, including micro charities with no paid staff, what this means in practice varies enormously.  Some trustees are by necessity hands-on when it comes to their charity’s services and activities; others, where there are paid staff, have little or no involvement in day-to-day operations.  Their governance role may require  simply that they attend board meetings once every two or three months, where they will be presented with reports from the senior manager and finance officer and generally keep themselves up to date.

In my experience, people who apply to become trustees do so with the best of intentions. They start out with enthusiasm and are keen to get ‘stuck in’.  So what goes wrong?  And, when it does, how can you as a senior manager help to resolve the issue?

 

‘Dead Wood’ Trustees

We’ve all met them. The kind of trustee who may have a strong affinity with the cause and has been on the board for years. They presumably enjoy the kudos of being a charity board member, but in fact during meeting after meeting they barely if ever contribute a question or opinion about anything on the agenda.  

‘Dead wood’ trustees are the product of complacency. Some charities still think it’s okay to have a board full of trustees who are affable, like-minded, but ultimately less than valuable. This is doing their cause no favours. These days not-for-profits have to operate in a highly competitive operational environment.  This isn’t to say that every trustee must contribute business skills; rather, your aim should be to recruit a range of people and stakeholders who, in their different ways reflect diversity as well as informed opinion.

The least painful way to let go of long-standing trustees who are no longer adding value is to deploy good governance practice. If you have to amend your constitution in the process, so be it.  You want to ensure that all trustees must step down for re-election after an agreed period (usually three years), and that the maximum any trustee can serve is two terms . 

Even the most committed and able trustees have usually given their best by year three, so hold tight to that policy even when you are due to lose a highly prized board member. If there is still a lot of mileage in the relationship, a break of one  year or more will refresh their interest and you can always invite them back.

 

Absent Trustees

Ever been burdened by a trustee who seems never to be available, either to attend board meetings or support your charity’s fundraising events? I had a bad experience of this with a local councillor: in her application she had boasted to our Chair of the doors she could open if she joined our board.  That made her a shoo-in as far as we were all concerned.

The ink on this newly appointed trustee’s declaration of trust form was barely dry before the problem of absenteeism started.  We agreed a date for her induction meeting, not once but three times, only for her to cancel each time and usually at the last minute. Actually, I need to correct that. On one of those occasions, she texted me ten minutes after the start time to say something urgent had cropped up.

Then she never actually made it to a board meeting either – not one in the five that convened during that next year.  Our Chair fretted, checking in with her several times that all was okay and that we looked forward to seeing her soon. Understandably, he remained mindful of what she had promised in terms of useful contacts. But I was offended on behalf of our charity.  Why on earth had she wanted to be a trustee in the first place? Simply to add another credit to her CV? It’s hard to fathom.

Needless to say, this trustee was ousted at the next AGM, with most of the board having still never met her.  It was a lesson learned for me and I made sure to add a section about availability into our trustee application form for next time.  Because no matter what hopes you pin on to a trustee in terms of importance and influence, if their commitment is only half baked, you won’t see those hopes realised.

 

Bored and Disengaged Trustees

A newly promoted CEO recently shared with me a concern about his charity’s trustees, complaining that they often seemed distracted and even a little bored at meetings.  He said he couldn’t help noticing that during the CEO’s report, which takes up most of the meeting time, they would lapse into checking mobiles, or even answering emails on their laptops.  

What to do in a situation like this? Some immediate thoughts come to mind as a resolution for the problem of bored trustees:

  • Appoint a new Chair to shake things up
  • Make occasional changes to the format and style of meetings.
  • Ban use of mobiles during meetings

All of these can help, but none were necessarily the right answer this time.  I happened to know the trustees of this charity well enough outside a meeting context to ponder that something must be amiss.  Could it be that the problem lay less with them than with the CEO’s reporting style? 

The CEO and I talked about different methods of presentation. He went away determined to give more time to preparing for the next board meeting. This time he didn’t just bundle together the usual facts and figures, or limit himself to explaining where his team were in relation to this year’s business plan.  Instead, he used the results as a springboard to draw interesting comparisons between their organisation and what was happening more broadly in the charity sector. His report turned out no longer than usual, but clearly it proved a lot more interesting for his audience. In fact it had the trustees buzzing with questions and comments about the information being given to them.  I couldn’t resist giving this CEO a secret thumbs up. He had smashed it.

When it comes to noticing bored trustees, we can sometimes be too hasty to point a finger. As a CEO or senior manager reporting to the board, we need to do our bit as well to make meetings interesting. 

 

Trustees who constantly challenge

The first charity board I ever faced included the most probing and challenging trustee I have ever had to deal with. She was an expert in governance, read every paper thoroughly before each meeting, and had a formidable no-nonsense attitude during questions.  I quickly surmised that she hadn’t rated my predecessor and was determined to get the measure of me quickly.

This may sound bizarre, but I believe coming up against such a force at the start of my career as a charity CEO was the best thing that could have happened to me.  Of course it was daunting at times, but I learned from the outset never to go into a board meeting without being completely prepared. When I was presenting a report, I anticipated the questions that might be asked and I was ready with my answers. If the charity had underperformed one quarter, I would have an explanation as to why this had happened.  Better still, I would bring to the table my ideas for recovery so these could be discussed and agreed. 

This isn’t rocket science and it worked.  However the point is that instead of feeling attacked and defensive, I chose to raise my game and managed eventually to turn this trustee into a close ally. It wasn’t hard to see what lay behind the difficult questions: like me, she was pushing hard because she wanted the charity to succeed.  

That trustee helped me become a better CEO. Over the years, even after she moved to another charity, and then another, we stayed in touch.  When she recently asked me to join her as a trustee on her latest board, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Her knowledge of governance is second to none, and all of us should keep learning.

Not every story about a challenging trustee ends this well, but if you do feel under attack then it has to be worth a try to take a more positive view about what could be going on.  You never know, you might turn the situation around in your favour, as happened to me. 

I would love to have your feedback on this article and hear any stories you have about working with a board of trustees. Write to me at jenny@theboilingfrog.co.uk and let’s continue this conversation.

About the Author – My name is Jenny Hopkins and The Boiling Frog is my blog for and about the charity sector. After more than ten years as a CEO, I now work as a freelance consultant, specialising in helping small and medium-sized charities adapt to our changing world.  I have one goal, and that is to help you succeed. Email me at jenny@theboilingfrog.co.uk and let’s discuss how we can make that happen.

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