Let’s talk about boards

I have spent most of my working life in the charity sector. One constant challenge through that time has been the performance and governance of boards.

I have spent most of my working life in the charity sector. One constant challenge through that time has been the performance and governance of boards.

I first published this article on LinkedIn, almost exactly three years ago – and by coincidence, the next Creative Help online workshop (Wednesday 19 August) is called Reinventing Governance. I have taken the opportunity to revise this article in the light of recent experiences. 

I have spent most of my working life in the charity sector, as an executive manager, board member and consultant. One constant challenge through that time has always been the performance of the board and the board/executive relationship. 

I don’t want to disrespect the hard work and dedication of volunteer board members, but from my experience and listening to colleagues around the UK, I am concerned that many companies operate below par. The consequences can be harmful: morale goes down; chief executives sometimes leave prematurely; board members get frustrated; the organisation can lose focus and waste energy, not to mention money. Occasionally companies go bankrupt (or get saved at the last minute) because problems do not come to light until it is (almost) too late. 

Board development (taking time out to consider the performance of the board) is often overlooked and this can be bad news for the company, funders and all the stakeholders we serve. This isn’t about blame, but how much of this is familiar to you? 

  • There is no job description or induction for trustees. 
  • Nobody responded to the advert, so we went through our contacts. 
  • We organised a board induction day but attendance was poor. 
  • Some trustees are confused as to why they are on the board. 
  • The chair was elected by default because nobody else volunteered. 
  • The chair is staying on because we can’t find anyone to take over. 
  • The chair means well, but chairing meetings isn’t their strong point. 
  • Board meetings tend to focus on activity since the last meeting. 
  • Trustees see their role as checking up on the work of the company. 
  • There is no annual performance “appraisal” of board performance.
  • We don’t have time to work on this – it is what it is. 

The list goes on… 

Now I’ll let you into a secret: when I wrote this three years ago, I had just done some work with a charity that ticked almost every line above. And this wasn’t the first time either. 

Of course, it’s rarely that bad – but often it’s in the fair-to-middling region. Some questions: 

  • Do you have a rigorous board recruitment and induction process? 
  • Do trustees understand why they have been appointed, know when and how to support the company? 
  • Do trustees understand that the election of the chair is every bit as important as the recruitment of the chief executive? 
  • Do you have a CPD programme for the executive that is also available for board members? 
  • Does your board undergo an independent annual appraisal to measures its performance? 
  • Do your chair and chief executive have a close working relationship that ensures agendas and board papers are appropriate and focused? 
  • Does your chair understand how to facilitate a meeting, engage with trustees, allow rich discussions that make the most of the “wisdom in the room” and achieve consensus? 
  • Do your trustees and executive(s) have a close working relationship based on trust? 

Can I support you to make the journey from problematic to fully functioning?

Here are some of the benefits of independent support

  • Improved trust and a closer working relationship will make meetings and the whole board journey more interesting, engaged, efficient – and more enjoyable. 
  • It will enhance the overall efficiency of the company: making and saving money, improving teams and individual performance. 
  • It gets board development on the agenda and off the “one day we should” list. 
  • Board development becomes a focused part of your commitment to CPD and will demonstrate commitment to funders and stakeholders. 
  • The company receives specific expert support without undermining the authority of any manager, executive or board member. 
  • This work will focus on celebrating good practice and supporting continuous improvement (it’s not about blame, so there’s no need to be defensive). 
  • Executive officers will enjoy improved support through ongoing mentoring (if required). 
  • It will make the company more resilient and improve board diversity and skills. 


My experience over some 30 years means I can support your board development programme and work with you to enhance leadership, governance and management. 

I would be very happy to discuss my approach with you and hear about your shared desire to get the best from the executive-board relationship. I take time to get to know the organisation, so approaches are tailored to needs and desired outcomes. 

Please get in touch if you would like to start a conversation. 

Testimonial from the Chair of Craft Scotland following a period of coaching and board development with the chief executive and board:  David worked alongside Craft Scotland during a period of growth and change. His research and advice were invaluable in supporting this challenging process. He presented creative ideas, opened interesting and constructive debate, offered sound business advice and proved to be an excellent and very pleasant ‘colleague’. 

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