For the last five years, we have co-chaired the charity Grandparents Plus. A national charity which champions the role of grandparents and the wider family in children’s lives, Grandparents Plus was founded by Jean with Michael Young – who had also founded the consumer charity Which? – in 2001.
The co-founders chaired the charity in its infancy, before Young died in 2002. Jean then chaired the charity through some thick – and quite a lot of thin – times. At the 2010 AGM it was agreed that Stephen Burke, then vice-chair, would become co-chair of Grandparents Plus with Jean.
So how does it work? There is a clear split of responsibilities between the two co-chairs, but certain tasks are shared. Stephen chairs board meetings and has more involvement in supporting the chief executive, as well as communicating with other trustees, overseeing finances, and delivery.
As the co-founder, Jean is the keeper of the flame, making sure the charity pursues its mission and acting as an ambassador for the charity and the cause. She has pushed for professionals in local authorities to think about the family first when considering a child’s future and for more support for kinship carers. Together, we have regular joint meetings with, and annual appraisals of, the chief executive.
The role split reflects our backgrounds. Stephen has been chief executive of two national care charities, and now runs a social enterprise and sits on a number of boards. Jean is a social worker by background and has vast knowledge of children’s and family issues and a passion for their wellbeing and for tackling ageism. Stephen is 54 and Jean is 86, so we also bring different and inter-generational perspectives.
Co-chairing can only work well with good communication, trust and understanding. It helps that we have known each other for more than 15 years but, perhaps strangely, communication has got better since Stephen moved to Norfolk while Jean lives in London. We have to make sure we keep in touch and let each other know about any issues and developments, regularly speaking on the phone as well as emailing.
The charity benefits from both our sets of experience, skills, networks and knowledge. Two of us can cover more events, meetings and media than one. We benefit from having someone we can discuss and share issues with. And our three-way meetings with the chief executive also benefit from having an extra and different viewpoint.
Of course there are potential difficulties. There is scope for miscommunication or confusion about roles. Diaries can sometimes be more complicated. But ‘no surprises’ is a crucial rule. Making sure we both know what is being done and what has been agreed is key. Sometimes we don’t agree, but there’s nothing like a healthy disagreement to help move things on.
We continue to review how the board is working. Our fellow trustees regularly comment on the value of the co-chairing arrangement and how it compares with other boards they sit on.
Co-chairing may not be for every charity and every board. But we firmly believe that two heads are better than one.
This article was co-written a few weeks before Jean Stogdon’s death on 25 December 2014. Stephen Burke, her co-chair at Grandparents Plus, has told Third Sector that he and Jean’s family are happy for this piece, on a subject that she was passionate about, to be published