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Disengaged Trustees: the damage they can do and what to do about them


A sheet of paper on to which is drawn a pattern of 13 identical generic outline human forms standing as a group.  The bottom left-hand corner of the sheet, containing one of the outline forms, is torn away. This represents disengagement from the group.
When a trustee becomes disengaged

I’ve got disengaged trustees on my mind this week.  Clearly this is a common problem across the charity sector, because it comes up a lot in my work as a charity consultant and when I’m mentoring leaders of small charities.  I think we risk underestimating the negative impact of disengaged trustees, so this post is about highlighting the damage they can do and what to do about it.  Here’s a clue to what you're about to read: you don’t bury your head in the sand.


Disengaged Trustees – how we identify them

What do I mean by disengaged trustees? Well, you know, these are the trustees who never respond to emails. Rarely attend regular board meetings, and when they do, you can bet they’ve never read the papers in advance. Why not? “Oh sorry, I’ve just been so busy.”

It can take weeks to set up a simple meeting because they aren’t checking in and profess never to see any emails. “I can’t do it while I’m at work” and “I’m just so exhausted  when I get home, and then there are the kids to get to bed”.  Honestly, it’s not that other trustees don’t understand and sympathise, it’s just – guess what? – they have lives too and are almost certainly doing the same kind of juggling act with their time. Only, those ones - the trustees that are like gold dust - take more seriously the responsibility that comes with being on a charity board.


How disengaged trustees show a lack of respect

Do you know what most winds me up about disengaged trustees? It’s the regard they have for their own precious time that doesn’t extend to an appreciation for anyone else’s.  Like the poor CEO who has spent an hour preparing answers to different questions they have anticipated at a board meeting, only to discover that the ten minutes assigned to that agenda item is now going to be wasted instead on explaining background only, because some trustees were just “too busy” to read the documents in advance.


Or the poor charity administrator who is told to set up a meeting, and wastes precious time sending out one scheduling poll after another as each communication in turn is ignored and then becomes out of date and new dates need to be put together. 


If you’re a disengaged trustee, honestly this isn’t fair and please step up or step away because you’re making life so much harder for everyone.


Disengaged trustees and the damage they do

Of course, we could start a whole debate about whether disengaged trustees is symptomatic of a charity sector too dependent on volunteering and goodwill, possibly needing modernisation, but let's save that discussion for another time. Here, I just want to explore the serious implications of having disengaged trustees and the importance of addressing the problem before it demotivates the entire board and leads to the departure of dedicated trustees.


At one workshop I was facilitating, disengaged trustees had become so much the norm for the board that three of the trustees had effectively become "a board within a board", emailing each other and making decisions independently because they had given up on trying to engage the other trustees. 


But then a crisis hit, when the charity’s burnt-out chief officer abruptly resigned, citing the lack of support from the board as a key factor in their decision.  Suddenly the disengaged trustees wanted to know more and, in their panic at losing a top-notch charity leader, turned on the core trustees and blamed them for letting it happen.  For not warning them how stressed the CEO had become. 


The core trustees were in turn offended and angry, blaming the disengaged trustees for being somewhat late to the party of a crisis which they had been trying to manage on their own for several weeks, if not months.


In the inevitable finger pointing and blame shifting that followed, two of the core trustees resigned and the remaining trustees were left bruised and shaken by how events had unfolded. They were left with having to recruit not only a new CEO, but a new board Chair and Vice Chair as well.


This may seem an extreme story, but having the privilege of working with a lot of charities over the years, I can tell you that this scenario is not as unusual as we might think.


We shouldn’t underestimate the consequences for a charity burdened by disengaged trustees.  Even without the kind of drama described above, disengaged trustees will affect the ability of a charity board to do its governance work effectively.  If only half the board can be relied upon to attend regular quarterly meetings, how can you ever be sure that a decision taken about the budget or any other matter are being properly carried by a majority?


And what happens when a decision is taken, only for a disengaged trustee suddenly to pop up their head and become engaged for a long enough moment to say they strongly object to a decision that has been taken previously?


I’ve also seen a situation where long-serving, hard-working trustees were nearing their end of tenure, so in an effort to ensure a smooth transition, the board recruited new trustees a year ahead of their departure. To their dismay, all three new trustees proved unreliable, missing meetings, and ignoring communications.  What had been a really good board soon slipped into one that was struggling to function at all.


While being a charity trustee is voluntary and should never be overly burdensome, it does come with a commitment to responsibility. The casual approach some trustees take towards their duties is incredibly frustrating for those left to do more.


Strategies to reinvigorate a charity board


So what to do about this problem of disengaged trustees?

 

The first thing to say about disengaged trustees is that a charity ignores this problem at its peril.  Some charities do nothing, taking the line trustees are volunteers after all, and we should be grateful for whatever breadcrumbs of participation they offer.   But I think that’s risky.


Of course there are legitimate reasons for a trustee’s absence, such as illness, and sometimes there may be issues within the board’s culture causing disengagement.  Possible reasons need to be explore with sensitivity, and support offered where needed.  However, once we can put any legitimate reasons aside, we shouldn’t make excuses for what’s evident: disengaged trustees are damaging and don’t belong on a charity board.


To tackle the issue, here are the strategic steps to take:

Assessment and communication: Engage in open one-to-one dialogue with the trustee to understand the root cause of their disengagement.


Setting clear expectations: When a new trustee is being appointed, establish a clear set of expectations, and communicate the responsibilities and time commitment involved in being a trustee.   Preferably in writing, and for the new trustee to sign.


Review meeting schedules: ensure that meeting times are convenient for all, which might involve rotating meeting times or offering remote participation options.


Offer training and support: Sometimes trustees may feel out of their depth. Providing training can empower them to participate more actively.


Acknowledge contributions: Recognition can go a long way. Celebrate the successes and contributions of trustees to keep them engaged.


Introducing term limits: Set term limits for trustees to ensure fresh perspectives and to prevent burnout and disengagement over time.

Create a robust induction process: A thorough induction for new trustees can set the stage for engagement by clearly outlining their role and the value they bring to the board.


Fostering a positive board culture: A welcoming and inclusive board culture can help trustees feel valued and part of a team, which encourages engagement.


Implementing an exit strategy: Have a graceful and clear process for trustees to step down if they cannot fulfil their roles, without negative repercussions.


Conclusion

Disengaged trustees are not just a minor inconvenience, they can be a significant liability. It’s vital for the health and effectiveness of charities to address this issue head-on with clear strategies and processes. By taking decisive action, charities can foster a board culture that is active, engaged, and aligned with their important missions.

 

One Chair I know takes a much tougher line and isn’t shy at all about voicing their concern at board meetings when a trustee has been absent for more than one meeting in a row without adequate explanation. Nor pushing for their removal promptly when evidence of disengagement becomes clear. This might seem harsh, but they reason it is essential to prevent a negative impact on the morale of the board as a whole, and it also effectively sends a signal to other trustees about charity board expectations.


A charity board needs to be a dynamic and active body, reflective of the charity’s energy and commitment to its cause. When trustees are engaged, they can provide invaluable guidance, support, and oversight that is crucial for the success of the organisation.


Jenny Hopkins is the founder of The Boiling Frog. After an early career in publishing, she moved to the charity sector as CEO of a regional frontline charity. Over a period of ten years, she was credited with transforming it into an award-winning organisation and trusted partner of local health and social care statutory bodies. She now works as a charity consultant, sharing her learning and experience with senior managers and trustees. Jenny does this alongside doing a part-time PhD research study on the impact of marketisation on deaf charities. Her ‘Tools for Charities’ is a unique resource aimed at saving charity leaders time and stress associated with some of the regular and not-so-regular tasks associated with charity leadership and governance.


Jenny uses The Boiling Frog blog as a way to reflect and challenge her own experience and perceptions about the role of charities in society today. She is also Vice Chair and on the board of trustees for two charities.

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