Addressing the responsibilities of the modern trustee
"David’s wide experience of working with other churches and faith organisations was extremely valuable for us. It’s reassuring to know that the things we grapple with, other churches grapple with too. He has a real skill for challenging nicely – he didn’t let anyone wriggle away from anything and he was very good about holding us to concrete actions."
LISA KIEW, HEAD OF FINANCE AND RESOURCES, THE RELIGIOUS SOCIETY OF FRIENDS (QUAKERS)
Britain Yearly Meeting is the umbrella organisation that supports and sustains Quakers in Britain. The Quaker faith was founded in the 17th century and has campaigned for peace and social and economic justice ever since. Faced with a changing environment, in which the responsibilities and risks faced by charity trustees have changed considerably, the Quakers charity recognised a need to put its trustees through a session of governance training. At the same time, the charity was facing an irresistible need to actively fundraise, something it had not experienced for at least 10 years. When Britain Yearly Meeting’s Head of Finance and Resources, Lisa Kiew, met David Saint at a conference, these requirements were discussed and Lisa realised that Action Planning could provide the training and guidance the Quakers needed.
Action Planning was asked to provide general governance training to help the trustees understand their responsibilities in the wider context of charity governance and in the context of fundraising in particular, and to help establish a fundraising strategy for the charity.
There are various techniques you can apply in governance training and strategic planning, but it helps to start with some knowledge of the delegates. After an initial consultation with Lisa, the Clerk of Trustees and the Recording Clerk (Chief Executive), David interviewed a selection of the trustees to gauge their level of understanding and their individual ideas and priorities. This meant that when the training day began, David was able to feed back useful insights and challenge the delegates to think in a focused way.
Early on in the session David invited Trustees to stand by the window. First, he asked them to study the surface of the roadway outside, then after a few minutes to lift their gaze to the street view in the middle distance. Finally, he asked them to look over the rooftops and into the open sky. He challenged participants to consider how much of their time as trustees was spent focusing on the minutiae (the equivalent of the road’s surface) and how much on the bigger picture (the street view, and open sky). This provided a useful reference point throughout the session.
Creative approaches such as this proved useful, as did David’s ability to link his experience of other churches and organisations with the Quakers’ own challenges. Quakers are renowned for straight talking, and find the concept of leadership difficult, having no clergy and believing we all have equal access to the divine, so the strategic guidance had to be handled with a level of sensitivity and diplomacy, while still tackling the important questions. By the end of the meeting, David had steered the group towards embracing their collective responsibilities and agreeing to specific actions.
The trustees came away from the training day with a firmer grasp of their responsibilities and have begun to set strategic priorities for the next five years.
Trustees have so many responsibilities (ultimately everything!) that it is all too easy to get bogged down in the detail, thus missing the bigger picture. An important part of the trustee’s role is to step back and reflect – and also to look forward. Taking time out like this – ideally with an external facilitator – is a great way to bring the micro and the macro back into balance.