Make the most of your charity’s board

  • An effective board of trustees is essential to the smooth running of any charity
  • We spoke with David Robb, head of the Scottish Charity regulator, to hear his thoughts on what makes a successful board
  • He shares 10 top tips for making the most of your board

In the latest in our series of articles focussing on the Scottish voluntary sector, we find out from David Robb, Chief Executive at the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR), how he thinks charities and voluntary organisations can best utilise their board’s expertise.

David Robb has a long history of public service work, spanning areas such as health, housing and social inclusion. Here, he shares 10 crucial things to do to make the most of the skills and knowledge of your charity’s trustees.

1. Look to the future

Your board’s role is to act in the best interests of the charity. This is not just about what’s happening today, but also making sure your charity is sustainable for the future.

To do this, your board needs to be able to use modern world skills. It needs to understand areas such as ‘digital’, which means you’ll either need to find people with such skills to sit on the board, or offer training to develop them.

2. Bring your board together outside of meetings

A board needs to be able to work as a team, which is much easier when you know each other on a human level. However, it’s difficult to build genuine relationships when you only spend time together in meetings.

Informal inductions and other events are therefore important to help your board work well together.

3. Be open about conflicts of interest

There’s no escaping conflict of interest – board members will sometimes have to deal with issues that are connected with their private or professional lives.

However, that doesn’t automatically mean that person shouldn’t be involved. What it does mean is that they should declare any interests and step back from any decisions that might affect them personally.

4. Be prepared for debate, but abide by the group decision

People get involved with charities because they’re passionate about the cause. Passionate people are a good thing, but a room full of passionate people will inevitably lead to some heated discussions. The important thing to remember is that once a collective decision is made, everyone should be expected to get behind it.

5. Look outside for specialist expertise

There’s no shame in your permanent board having some gaps in their expertise – you’re not writing your constitution or reviewing your investment portfolio every week. A mature and confident board will look outside for expert advice when it is needed.

6. Keep your membership fresh

There are no hard-and-fast rules about terms of office for board members, but it’s generally good practice to have an element of turnover and refresh your membership.

I think it’s best to be open about that approach. It seems more dignified to have, for example, a four-year renewable term, than to have an unexpected and difficult conversation when you think it’s time for someone to move on.

7. Use benefits to break down barriers

It’s highly unusual for charities in Scotland to offer remuneration for board members. Most consider it rewarding enough to be closely involved with something they believe in.

However, that’s very different from leaving people out of pocket. Nothing about your board meetings should create barriers to attending. You may want to offer expenses, or benefits such as childcare. Even simple things, like the timing of the meetings or the venue, may inadvertently exclude people.

8. Buddy up with other boards

Sometimes, charities can become quite inward looking. Simply getting together with other boards can offer a different perspective and help to find new solutions to challenges. There’s an opportunity for both charities to benefit.

9. Seek support if you’re struggling

As the regulator, we tend only to get involved when things have gone wrong. In so many cases, seeking advice earlier would have avoided an issue. If you ever need help, the Third Sector Interface (TSI) in your area is a good first port of call.

10. Celebrate your board

Board members contribute so much to the running of charities, and doing so should be a deeply rewarding experience for them. Make sure your trustees understand how much you appreciate their hard work.