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Observations (and a health warning) on the role of chairs in charities

Recent failures of governance at high profile charities such as Kids Company have been subject to many articles, much comment and some analysis.  I do not intend to add to this but have been reflecting on the role of trustees – and specifically charity board chairs and their responsibilities.

I know from personal experience that being a chair can be demanding and challenging, at times very time consuming and above all very rewarding. For more than 40 years, I have chaired various voluntary sector and public bodies, and am currently chair of the charity Action Space and of the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy.

In the comments that follow, which emerge from that experience, I will confine myself to charities that are large enough to employ staff, and in particular, chief executives. The situation is different in small organisations in which the board of trustees are also the volunteers, who deliver the charity’s activities.

I believe that the chair of a charity has five key responsibilities:

1. A chair must be the ultimate guarantor and protector of the charity’s mission, values and principles, and of its reputation.

2. A chair has to ensure that the board is aligned with this mission, the values, the principles and reputation, and acts collectively as its custodian. The chair must also: ensure that the right trustees are appointed; be supportive of trustees, enabling them to make a full contribution at board meetings and in other ways; and appraise them on a regular basis.

3. A chair must secure the appointment of a chief executive, ensuring that  she/he has the necessary values, attributes and competencies to fulfil this role, and is held to account for agreed objectives and outcomes. This will involve jointly setting agreed targets with the chief executive, undertaking regular appraisals and, performance managing (and where necessary, and in extremis, removing) the chief executive. A good chair will act as a critical friend to a chief executive, offering challenge and support. Where a chief executive is seen to be failing, it may be necessary for the chair to step in and offer some limited operational leadership but generally, it is vital that the chief executive is empowered to undertake operational leadership, leaving the board and chair to focus on strategy.

4. A chair has to ensure that the charity is financially sustainable, and is robustly compliant with all current legislation and regulation.

5. A chair has to ensure that the board adopts a strategy for the charity and reviews this on regular basis.

In addition, many charity chairs will play ambassadorial roles for the charity.

The most critical relationship for the success of any charity (and indeed for most bodies in all sectors) is the relationship between the chief executive and the chair.  This has to be professional. Ego has to be put to one side.  The chemistry between the two has to be right. The chair has to be challenging whilst also being supportive. She/he should always be well informed and ideally be visible and allowed access across the organisation: this enables her or him to know what is going on, without being involved in operations and/or getting under the feet of the chief executive and senior staff.

I believe that there are several conditions that should apply to any chairing of a charity. These will be vary from charity to charity but should include:

·      an absolute  time limit on appointment

·      a commitment to give the time that the role requires

·      the avoidance of any conflict of interest

·      an empathy with the charitable aims

·      a job description;

·      an annual appraisal, which ideally should be an externally facilitated 360 degree’process

·      a willingness to undertake training and to keep up to date to with the organisation and the environment in which it operates

·      putting in place development and succession planning for the chief executive, the board and their own position – as well as ensuring that similar steps are in place for the executive.

Chairing is as vital to a charity as to a listed company or a public body.
Charities of all sizes and with every possible mission and objectives require high quality chairs – because effective governance matters.

If you aspire to be a chair, it is important that you seek and select the right appointment for you, and take on the role only when you know that it is right for you and, just as importantly, that you are right for the charity.  When you know that you can’t give what is required (be this time, commitment or physical/emotional engagement), then you also have to be ready to step aside. Hanging on past one’s sell-by date and/or when one is out of kilter with the organisation’s objectives and ethos is inappropriate and wrong.

I am mindful that a chairing a charity shares has much in common with chairing a public body, a school governing board or a company board.  We have to ensure that there is cross-sector learning, while also understanding the differences and between the sectors.

The next few years are likely to be very challenging for many charities – and I am clear that those with effective chairs, effective chief executives and effective governance have the best chance to survive, and to thrive.

Chairs, as much as chief executives, must step up to the mark for the sake of the charity sector and its beneficiaries.

  • Wally Harbert

    Splendid!

    I have just one additional point. In the hurly-burly of the day, there is a danger that an organisation spends all its energies responding to immediate and short-term issues. The Chairman (and, hopefully, the chief executive), should forever ensure that decisions reflect long-term needs.