Trustees have played a major role in helping their charities respond to the Covid crisis, but there has rarely been a time more challenging. The pace and difficulty of decision making has been on a new level. As we prepare for the future, charity leaders will want to make decisions that seize opportunities, manage risk and embrace change. Now more than ever you will want to be getting the most from your trustees.
Earlier this year, charity think tank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) partnered with decision-science consultancy Leapwise to explore how decision making by charity boards has changed during the crisis and how to strengthen it for the next chapter. And what they found was that the world of trustees is transforming; decisions you make now could shape your charity for years to come. But the crisis is also imposing changes on trustees themselves. Some are no longer able to volunteer as much as they would have liked and finance and operational decisions may be crowding out more strategic conversations.
So, with leadership more important than ever, how do you keep your trustees engaged? And what do you need to keep in mind when recruiting for new trustees in the months to come?
1. Make meetings matter
How often trustees meet, how they meet and what they discuss has been upended by the pandemic. Leapwise’s research showed the majority now meet more often (57.6%), yet a considerable proportion (43.8%) said meetings have become less focussed on long-term strategic objectives as urgent issues take over.
Many feel the sudden shift online has made it harder to have good conversations. Online debates often feel clunky. Several chairs reported trustees being less assertive. One recounted vividly how his request for input was met by everyone muting their microphones. Multiple trustees said that not being able to mingle before and after was undermining their confidence in the decisions reached.
You want trustees to discuss high-level strategy without getting side-tracked by details, so be clear on your goals and their importance. Delegate detailed discussions to sub-committees to allow trustees to engage in-depth. This can lead to a greater sense of ownership and responsibility.
Find a chair who can get to know their trustees well. You want someone who can quickly understand who habitually disagrees, who offers few but high-value contributions, who rambles, who switches off in conversations outside their expertise and who will have read every paper in full.
Consider using the potential of virtual meetings to your advantage. Invite expert contributors who you would otherwise be unable to involve. You could even record parts of your discussions to share with frontline staff.
If you’re thinking about hiring new trustees, make sure you’re transparent about the changes to the way your board operates. Let them know about virtual accommodations and that there may be periods where they’re meeting more frequently—that way, no one is caught of guard when they start a new trustee position.
2. Write better board papers
One in four trustees (26%) say improving the quality of input would be the first thing they would change about board meetings. Many trustees feel that board papers get out of hand, with one chair saying their board papers used to be 300–400 pages long. So, it’s no surprise then that trustees commonly mention ‘reading board papers’ as their least favourite part of trusteeship, and that’s if they read them at all…
Think about how you present information. Focus papers on impact and outcomes to ensure decisions centre on your core charity mission. Organise your papers around the decisions that need to be made, rather than by theme. It makes processing information more focussed on the decision at hand.
When it comes to recruitment, why not mention some of the pain points you have with board papers in the job spec? You might even catch the attention of a candidate who has done this particularly well in the past.
3. Follow up with action
Trustees must make decisions that will ensure charities achieve their objectives. The hard part is to make it happen once the decision is made.
39% of the trustees surveyed said the process of turning decisions into real-world change was moderate or poor, with a similar percentage saying it would be the number one thing they would change.
Take a systematic approach to decisions and consider what criteria you are basing your decisions on. It can be helpful to recruit trustees with different appetites for risk. Be sure to check for well-known biases that influence what options are proposed.
Plan your implementation by rating decisions on importance and urgency using a 2×2 matrix. Be clear on what is important and when it must be done by.
Remember that decision-making involves not just ‘the decider’. Others have roles in the process. Role clarity is essential for speed, agility and coordination. Keep a logbook of decisions that have been made to hold everyone accountable and to use as a hand-over when recruiting new trustees.
4. Stay relevant
42% of trustees surveyed said Covid-19 had led to fewer discussions of long-term strategic issues at board meetings. On the other hand, around a third reported an increased focus on long-term strategic issues.
Many of the questions raised by the pandemic are clearly strategic at heart. Some charities are already considering what future programme delivery, fundraising and reserves should look like, how they can collaborative and if they should merge. But many trustees have found themselves overwhelmed by the here-and-now.
A strategy based on the charity’s bigger purpose can provide essential boundaries for decision-making. Such guard rails are invaluable in complex or chaotic environments. To stay agile, you need to be clear about the purpose and identity of your charity. What do you stand for? Where are your red lines?
Map out your strategic priorities in greater detail for the short- to medium-term and in less detail the further ahead you look. Given the uncertainty created by Covid, some charities have found it useful to shift from planning 2–3 years ahead to focussing on the next 6–12 months. Use a strategy traffic light system to show how much attention trustees need to pay to competing priorities.
5. Keep learning
Without feedback, decision-makers are stumbling in the dark. Many trustees understand this and recognise that creating the right kind of charity in a changing landscape requires a mindset of continuous learning. Have a post-meeting debrief to review what worked and consider ’willingness and ability to give feedback’ as a criterion in trustee recruitment. Recruit a vice-chair to give feedback on chairing.
And remember—new perspectives should always be welcome. If you feel like your trustee board is constantly getting stuck on the same roadblocks and issues, then why not bring in someone new to shake things up? Try to have a mix of diverse backgrounds, skills and experiences in order to ensure you’re addressing every issue from a thousand different angles. Otherwise, you’re running the risk of falling into the same traps and biases you’ve experienced before.
Governance and decision-making systems are undoubtedly feeling the pressure, but this isn’t always translating into changes in approach. Capacity is limited, risk-appetite is down and many boards are already overwhelmed with unfamiliar ways of working.
The decisions that will shape the charity landscape for decades to come are only now appearing on the horizon, so seize this moment to make these changes, keep your trustees engaged and get the best decisions possible.
You can read NPC and Leapwise’s full research and guidance here.