How to be a good trustee during a period of rapid change

By the time you are reading my article, events in the external social and economic environment will have moved on considerably. The current pace of change means that as fast as we are thinking about how to react to a government decision or announcement, by the time we have implemented or even considered any actions arising, the situation has evolved again.

Under normal circumstances, board meeting calendars are often set up a year in advance. It is a sign of good planning and efficiency to have your board meeting papers sent out at least a week before a meeting, giving you plenty of time to read and digest the content, and come up with your questions to discuss at a meeting.

Based on my experience of attending meetings during the last few weeks, in the majority of cases, the papers that were issued have now been superseded, either as a result of shifting priorities, or in the case of charity finances, the data needs to be updated to real time information to be relevant to current decision making.

To help trustees find their way in these challenging and uncertain times, you may wish to consider the following tips:

  1. Relax and re-schedule your formal pre-planned board meeting calendar – if your charity is organising shorter, more informal briefings for the staff teams, consider joining in with those via phone or video link. These could include a virtual coffee or lunch break.
  2. Avoid preparing lengthy board papers on short to medium term issues requiring a decision – keep papers brief and to the point with clearly required actions. Consider circulating these electronically and keep decision deadlines as short as possible. However, do avoid knee jerk reactions – pause for thought and delay where this may be beneficial in the longer-term. If you need additional support, please refer to the Charity Commission guidance on decision making:
  3. Keep focused on risk – these are uncertain times – but cash is king and so any financial analysis prepared in support of a proposed decision should include easily understandable sensitivity analysis for different scenarios – work with your management team so that this minimises their time to prepare it, and your time to understand it.
  4. Hold more regular catch-ups with key members of the board and management team such as the Chair, Treasurer, Chief Executive Officer and Finance Director, in any combination. Don’t wait to discuss critical issues if someone is unavailable, keep discussions timely and relevant and update the wider team afterwards.
  5. Where you do hold virtual meetings, ensure minutes are typed up during the meeting so that they can be circulated and approved immediately afterwards. The Association of Chairs has produced its own helpful top tips on holding board meetings:
  6. Collaborate and play your part – ensure action plans are appended to the minutes so that everyone is clear how and when to make their contribution. If you agree to a follow up action, please carry it out, deadlines are likely to prove critical.
  7. And finally, share and learn. Keep communicating. These are unchartered waters. We are not going to get everything right first time. But if we share our experiences and learn how to do things in a better way next time, this continuous cycle of improvement will result in more effective governance in the longer term.

I hope that the above will enable you to support your management teams, to allow you to remain effectively engaged and involved with your organisation in real time, and to ensure your vital contributions ensure the financial sustainability of all charities within the sector.