David Saint

Mar 31, 2020, 3:00 PM

Coronavirus - How can Boards best support their charities through this crisis?

Every charity situation is different; every individual responds to crisis in different ways; and every individual will be affected by the current crisis in different ways – personally and professionally.

So these thoughts will be quite generic – they may even seem glib. But they are intended to provide a framework to help you think through the issues, and how to respond.

You as an individual

Aircraft safety drill – secure your own oxygen mask before helping anyone else.

Coronavirus – you will have immediate concerns for your family’s health and your financial wellbeing. There are no easy answers for any of us, but do make sure you address your own immediate concerns, have sensible contingency plans in place and have access to (and use) help to maintain your physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.

You as a member of a Board

The best Boards look and feel like a team, rather than a group of disconnected individuals who meet round a table three or four times a year. It is at times of adversity that teams are often at their strongest. Are you looking out for other members of the team, sharing good ideas and good news stories, and empathising with those that are struggling?

The Board's responsibilties

  1. Ensure your charity is carrying out its purposes for the public benefit
  2. Comply with your charity’s governing document and the law
  3. Act in your charity’s best interests
  4. Manage your charity’s resources responsibly
  5. Act with reasonable care and skill
  6. Ensure your charity is accountable

There are two attributes that are particularly valuable in a Board: objectivity, and perspective. The staff team will, understandably and rightly, be focussed on the here and now – on the needs of the beneficiaries, on arrangements for home working, on planning how to keep the money coming in to maintain cash flow. And you need to be supporting and encouraging them in that urgent activity.

But you also need to be standing back and thinking carefully about the longer term consequences of making (or not making) certain decisions. The staff team may not have the luxury of the time or semi-detachment to be able to think those thoughts. The Board can help provide that perspective – whilst being careful not to distract from or impede urgent actions.

Perspective without prevarication is the order of the day!

The Chief Executive

It is a well known fact that the Chief Executive’s role is a particularly lonely one. There are some things they can’t discuss with their staff and some things they can’t (or would be very uncomfortable about) discussing with their Trustees. As a Board it is, therefore, crucial that you cultivate a close and trusting relationship with the Chief Executive so they can discuss even the most difficult topics with Board members. And of course, the most significant of those relationships is between the Chair and the Chief Executive. If you are an ‘ordinary’ Board member, how do you view that relationship? Do they get on really well (but not so well that there is no challenge, no questioning?) And if the relationship is not all that it should be, what could other Board members do to help? At a time of crisis – like now – politeness needs to go out of the window if it is getting in the way of uncomfortable truths that need to be addressed.

Remember also that the Chief Executive is an individual as well – with family concerns, financial concerns and potentially health concerns. A lot of Chief Executives feel they have to portray a strong and confident exterior because of their position. Inside they may be feeling anything but strong and confident and will welcome genuine empathy and encouragement.

The Senior Management Team

If the Chief Executive’s job is the loneliest, members of the Senior Management Team are often the most squeezed. Closer to the coal face, under pressure from the Chief Executive (who in turn will be under pressure from the Board), in a crisis like this members of the Senior Management Team often have to cope with rising demand, dwindling resources and stressed staff. Board members have to be especially careful here – being seen, being supportive, but not in any way cutting across or undermining the line management relationship with the Chief Executive. Occasionally (and especially in smaller organisations) trustees will roll up their sleeves and get stuck in operationally to help out. If they do, they have to remember that they have taken off their trustee ‘hat’ and put on their volunteer ‘hat’ and, therefore, come under the authority of the Chief Executive whilst in that role. Not the easiest balance to strike, but an important one.

Oh yes, and guess what – senior managers are people too, with the same range of family and financial concerns.

The staff and volunteers

All too often we hear staff and volunteers (and sometimes beneficiaries) complaining that they don’t know who the trustees are, they never see them, so how can they have confidence that they know what’s happening day to day. In smaller charities in particular, the trustees should make a point of dropping in to chat with staff, volunteers and beneficiaries – as appropriate, of course. There shouldn’t be any hint of interfering, or checking up, or spying – simply a genuine interest in the wellbeing of the charity and the people in it. Right now that’s not possible, of course, as a result of social distancing. But are there other ways that individual Board members, or the Board as a whole, could communicate with (and hear from) the people directly involved in the charity’s work? We are suddenly all becoming very adept at using technology to communicate. What creative ways can we come up with that will enable Board members, staff and volunteers to engage with each other – as fellow travellers through some decidedly challenging terrain?

The beneficiaries

The beneficiaries often appear towards the end of pieces like this – almost as an afterthought. But in this case it is a question of ‘saving the most important to the last’. The first duty of charity trustees that I referred to at the beginning of this piece is to “ensure your charity is carrying out its purposes for the public benefit”. It is sometimes easy to slip into thinking that we have to preserve staff jobs at all costs. Or even that we have to keep the charity itself going at all costs. Actually what we have to do is to ensure that the needs of the beneficiaries (both those we have now and those that may come along in the future) are being met as effectively as possible – both now and for the longer term. Are we maintaining that perspective?

Being a charity trustee is a big deal. It always was, but there is now much more information – and regulation – to ensure charity trustees live up to their responsibilities. If you are a charity trustee, THANK YOU for taking on this responsibility and for taking it seriously.

And if you are a Chief Executive, member of a Senior Management Team, member of staff, volunteer, or beneficiary, do say THANK YOU to your trustees, for the responsibilities they shoulder, without payment, to provide effective governance to your charity.

We are going to beat the coronavirus eventually. That’s our common enemy. Let’s continue to work together to strengthen and support each other, and strengthen and support our charities, for the long term good of our society.