Governance tip 5 – Get the trustees involved in operations

Aaaaagh, shout a thousand charity chief execs petrified by the prospect of trustees sauntering around the office having ideas – yes, IDEAS – about how their charity should be run. And having worked with some trustees who had terrible ideas, I have some sympathy.

However, trustees should be involved in the day to day, and the separation of roles into strategic and operational is, and always has been, a myth: trustees make some operational decisions, and staff make some strategic ones; get over it.

The purpose of trustees getting involved in the day-to-day is often a little confused. It is not about visibility to keep the staff happy. It is not necessarily about having some additional free resource. And it is definitely not about undermining the skills, knowledge and decision-making authority of professionals at work.

Trustees should be involved in the operations of a charity because unless the people who govern the organisation have a good understanding of what’s going on in the organisation, they can’t govern it properly.

Trustees popping in to the office before board meetings to have a quick chat with staff typically doesn’t achieve this. One better solution is to arrange formal trustee visit days or sessions, with timetabled meetings with a clear purpose. If a trustee has the time, a regular visit to complete an agreed task will probably give more insight than three years of board papers. Alternatively, ask trustees to join specific project groups, where the purpose is clear, time is scheduled, and they know which staff and volunteers they will work with.

When they are in the office, it should be perfectly normal for trustees to poke around in filing cabinets, sit in on meetings, and make tea. Governing an organisation from on-high misses so much. Staff should never complain if a governor of the organisation wants to know what is going on –  and if one of your trustees really can’t be left alone in the office with some of the staff team for a short period of time without causing havoc, then you need to have a specific plan for resolving this. (See the next tip…)

This is one of a series of Practical governance tips for charity Chairs and Chief Executives.