This time last year I was in the middle of a national speaking tour on governance for a network of food banks. Guided by the questions and discussions that came out of that time, I thought I would distill the most important parts of what makes for good governance in a charity, along with an absolute top tip which never fails to deliver.
The first point is that trustees meetings are for overseeing the charity. How can they be aware and exercise oversight unless good reporting is built into their meetings?Work out what needs reporting and who will make sure it gets written down. Areas such as finance (which rarely gets missed!), human resources, risk areas, basic operations etc should all be given a small slot to be reported on in any board meeting.
Setting a standing agenda item on each of these and working out who brings the reports into the meeting will make sure the trustees are never going in blind, but have oversight of the main areas of the charity. It also helps the trustees stay away from operational matters and focus on their main role in governance.
The trustees are responsible for deciding, often with advisors, how the charity conducts its business and how it does certain things. A policy is a statement of intent and every charity needs a good suite of them, depending on the scope of their activity. A smaller charity will typically have 15 policies or more, larger charities will have many times that, especially in specialist areas such as care.
Setting policies and monitoring them will make sure a charity regularly checks on how it is conducting itself and how it is doing due diligence. It also protects the charity and its workers by helping everyone to be consistent and clear in the procedures they follow.
Remember, policies are statements of intent and are almost always supported by procedures on what to do in a given situation, such as a complaint. Call it a standard operating procedure or SOP. This will include risk registers, policies, procedures and systems.
My question to all the boards I visit is simply this: "Who talks about the future of your charity?" All trustees are charged with delivering on the objects of the charity and promoting it. This involves some planning, usually called strategy. Help is available from advisors or consultants who can come alongside and get conversations going, plans made and stuck to.
Even a simple plan is better than none and all trustees must together set some time aside, usually with senior staff/leaders, to discuss and plan for the future of the charity. Much can be said about this, but in short, however equipped you feel, as trustees you set regular annual dates for strategy and get good help if needed to get the conversation going. The future of all the good work you do is at stake.
Finally, all charities have a regulator and also other legal responsibilities. Some examples are the annual return including accounts, narrative and online questionnaire to the Charity Commission, reporting on data breaches and registration with the ICO, HMRC, Ofsted, insurance policies, safeguarding reporting, payroll and pensions etc.
Some of these have specific dates and/or timeframes. A data breach, for example, needs to be reported to the ICO within 72 hours! Any serious incident needs to be reported and submitted online by the trustees to the Charity Commission very soon after discovery. The list can be long but, in short, all charities face an increasing regulatory burden and having good admin and good simple systems and procedures will make sure you are sleeping at night and that the work of the charity is stewarded well.
My absolute top tip to finish is to have a Board Calendar made, which covers all the above. Whether you have an online shared calendar or a paper one doesn’t matter, but if you fill in the accountability dates, the board meetings, the policy review, the strategy date(s), the Staff and Volunteer appreciation party (don’t forget the socials!), the reporting schedules etc, the promise is this:
You will never fail to deliver good governance. You will stay on course, not get distracted by the operational detail and you will be handing over a very well run charity to the next trustee. Furthermore, your staff and volunteers will thrive. Keep the calendar live and on the table at every meeting, let it guide your agenda setting and watch the work of the charity flourish.
If any of this has resonated and you need any help, support or training for your board, please get in touch via email@example.com
Andy Strajnic is a charity specialist and advisor, prior to which he was the senior leader of a church in Oxfordshire for 20 years, whilst also serving as a Trustee and mentor for various charities. He now runs a consultancy firm, Pathway Consultancy Ltd, with clients ranging from various large national networks of charities to the small local foodbank.
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