what i've learnt about being a charity trustee
Gail Emerson, Women on Boards' CRM Marketing Manager, reflects on her time on as Chair of Lambeth Rathbone's board of trustees.
Six years ago I was feeling daunted by the acres of free time I’d have on maternity leave with just a baby to hang around with [insert bitter laugh at my youthful naivety here], so I decided to join a trustee board to keep me busy in my year ‘off’. Now the baby in question is starting year 2, I am stepping down from the board of Lambeth Rathbone — a small(ish) local charity working with people with learning disabilities and mainstream youth.
Although it is definitely the right time to go, I am sad to leave a friendly, positive team who are passionately committed to, and good at, supporting people with learning disabilities. I’ve spent a little time reflecting on what I have learnt over my time on this board, first as a trustee (communications lead) and then as Chair.
What I’ve learnt from the team there is significantly more than I can hope to pin down in a brief web article. Therefore I've focused on a few points about being a trustee - I’ll leave you to guess which parts are what I actually did and which are what I wish I’d done sooner …
Don’t rely on the minutes. Take your own notes on actions points or queries to be followed up. Then bring them up next time, or between meetings, until they are resolved. If you get to be Chair, or involved in shaping the reporting to the board, make sure there’s systems and frameworks that do this. Tread lightly but remember, the management team shouldn’t find being checked up on too comfortable.
Let the management team surprise you, though it’s no longer such a surprise to me when the team come back with innovative solutions that exceed our agreed goals. I've found by restricting the board to defining the aims and objectives (the 'what') but allowing the management team to shape the way they achieve them (the 'how'), the organisation gets much more than I could have envisaged. Of course, you need to be certain your team are up to it. If you suspect they aren’t, gather others’ views and start pushing for what the organisation needs.
Recruit new trustees little and often — even when you think you don’t need more people. Resignations can be quick and recruitment can be slow. Be creative in where you look (remember, it's free to post on our Vacancy board) and what expertise you are looking for but don’t compromise on quality. However, for a small local charity, an over-abundance of well-qualified, committed people has never been an issue.
Allow for a little chaos. I remember an early board meeting where I was pretty irritated asking why a piece of strategic work hadn’t been completed in time. The answer was that one of the residents (with learning disabilities) had managed to flood the basement. In a small charity, it’s the same person working on that top-level strategy who has to get the buckets to bail the water out (and re-do the risk-assessment to prevent a repeat). Be flexible enough to deal with reality getting in the way, but remember it’s your job to make sure those strategic bits don’t get forgotten.
And finally, make time to see the good that the charity does. Boards rightly focus on the organisation’s problems, potential and actual. If something is going well, it requires little of the trustees’ attention. Yes, your time is scarce but it’s very much worth investing that little bit more.
Lambeth Rathbone also does things like run an integrated youth club where young people with and without learning disabilities play table tennis, cook, make music and socialise together. They help people with learning disabilities follow their interest and passions whilst living independently. Their supported accommodation enables those with more severe needs to stay safe and calm. These are all things that we know our service-users and their families value greatly.
Take the time to go to the Christmas parties, dance shows or congratulate the team on another good inspection report — like this one! Enabling these things is the reason you’re involved, after all, so enjoy it.
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