17th November, 2017

Lessons from two years as Trustee & Chair of a small charity

My journey to being a Trustee of a small charity started in a workshop, when I realised that I missed making a big difference to one organisation. I was a charity CEO for eight years before becoming a consultant and I missed the thrills and terrors of charity leadership.

It was one of those serendipitous moments – I was talking to a coach in the workshop about whether I should go back to employment and how this didn’t fit with my family commitments (a familiar story, I know).  My leadership skills felt under-utilised and I missed the drive and passion that (at least for me) comes with leading a charity.

And then it hit me (cue the lightbulbs and heavenly music) – I should become a Trustee!

Cut to someone in the room who said that they knew a charity that was desperate for Trustees.  “It probably won’t be my thing”, I thought.  But I listened … a charity that works with young people, using creative media to eliminate stereotypes so that they can achieve their true potential… goosebumps!

So I met with the Chair and Co-ordinator of the charity (aGender Arts & Education), and they asked me to become Chair! (The current chair was stepping down).  My eyes widened and my jaw dropped. So there I was, a few weeks later, being co-opted as Trustee and Chair of this wonderful, tiny, and slightly wobbly charity.

And so I set about trying to develop our infrastructure and capacity by strengthening governance arrangements, developing a strategy, securing funding and setting up systems to measure impact.  Of course we met our fair share of wobbles and setbacks along the way. There is still so much to do, and so little time! It has been wonderful, exhausting, frustrating and exhilarating.  And we’ve only just begun!

Here’s what I learnt along the way:

  1. There’s never enough time to do everything you want to and should do. It can feel like even your best is not good enough when you are so committed to the mission of a small charity. I am my toughest critic. But I have to prioritise and delegate where I can, to avoid burnout. Sometimes you have to lower your sights. Delegate where you can, but sometimes delegating to Trustees (who may also have full-time jobs / family commitments) may backfire and lead them to feel overwhelmed / want to resign. That sounds contradictory doesn’t it? It is, so you have to strike a balance. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself as one of the beneficiaries needing charitable support!
  2. Take the engagement of fellow board members as seriously as donor engagement. They leave if they don’t feel connected to the cause. Invite them to visit active projects. Share impact reporting, photographs, stories, and presentations from front line staff.
  3. The buck stops here. Tough decisions need to be made; some people will think them unfair. Don’t take disagreement personally. You have to act in the best interests of the charity. Stay true to your organisation’s vision and values, know your legal responsibilities, and you won’t go far wrong.
  4. To build capacity and sustainability, securing funding for core costs is key. A charity cannot function without overheads.  Keep them lean and build into projects where you can through a Full Cost Recovery approach.  Be prepared to show core costs in terms of what the organisation wants to achieve (and funder priorities). I call this a purpose-based proposition (I’ll come back to this in another post).
  5. Be very selective in the people you recruit – don’t take people on because you think you have little choice. Get the paperwork sorted (agreements, contracts, references, appropriate checks etc.). It may be the most mind-numbingly boring task in the world, but if you don’t get this in place, you will regret it some day. Work on your relationship with the CEO – this may be most important working relationship within the organisation. Remember you are their line manager –  don’t let them manage the board.
  6. Your no 1 priority is to the charity and its assets. Not the beneficiaries or the staff.  A bold vision is beautifully motivating but don’t do more than your organisation can manage and don’t try to grow too quickly. You can’t do everything for all beneficiaries. Focus and prioritise where you can make the biggest difference. Heed the lessons of Kids Company!
  7. Ask yourself, frequently, ‘Are we still needed? Are we making a difference? Are we doing the right thing?’ Get good data to answer these questions. It should drive your strategy. (I met a chair recently who said he wrote the strategy of the organisation, and so didn’t need to know if it was needed or what impact it was having – ‘How do you know it’s not just money down the bin?’).
  8. Lastly – the big debate – paying Trustees.  Generally, charities can’t legally pay trustees (depending on its governing document).  But maybe it isn’t such a bad idea. I’ve always been against paying trustees, but am increasingly questioning why. Unless I want to work on my trustee duties into the evening and at weekends (I’m a working mother; I’m shattered), I do them during the working day (I’m lucky, I have a good boss!). Because these duties aren’t paid (and I have to pay the bills), they often get pushed to the bottom of the pile. Would I be more inclined to prioritise them if there were some Non-Exec Director payment attached? Probably yes … but I’d almost certainly donate my fee back to the charity.

It is relentless, but is honestly one of the most rewarding things I’ve done.  If you’re thinking of becoming a Trustee, you can search for vacancies here.

It would be remiss of me to not end on a plug for aGender – we’re about to start recruiting new Trustees and need a variety of skills and experience.  If you’d like to find out more, then drop me a line.

Image: Photo by Diz Play on Unsplash
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