Governance tip 6 – Write a plan for ineffectual trustees

An estimated 850,000 people in the UK volunteer as trustees, so it’s hardly surprising that some of them might struggle with their roles. As a charity Chair or CEO you need to decide what to do about those trustees who are not effective.

A range of problems arise, some of which are more destructive than others: there are trustees who read nothing and understand slightly less; those who only care about one aspect of the work at the expense of the other elements that the role requires; those who talk too much or too little; those who specialise in accidentally demotivating the staff; those who only want to talk about the day to day work or contribute in minute detail; those who still don’t understand the finances; those who combine several of the above; and, of course, those who don’t turn up.

Conversely, there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who give up their time, skills and knowledge for free and manage to provide a balance of challenge and support to the right people at the right time for years on end.

The way to deal with ineffectual trustees isn’t necessarily to get rid of them, certainly not immediately – this can take time and pain which may not outweigh the negative impact of their role. The most important thing is to ensure that ineffective trustees do not get in the way of having effective meetings, running the business, or motivating key staff.

A trustee who never turns up may oddly be less of a problem than someone who does – so firstly focus on creating a plan for the latter. The starting point should be to focus on understanding the perspective of the trustee, with a clear aim to help make the individual more effective in their role. Only when such a plan clearly fails should steps be taken to implementing something more terminal.

Managing ineffectual trustees is the job of the Chair. The CEO should be invited to raise issues, and certainly encourage annual reviews and carefully focussed recruitment. A shrewd CEO will also keep their eye on terms of office stipulated in the governing documents, and encourage their Chair to ensure that all trustees sign a code of conduct, with clearly stated consequences of non-compliance.

Finally, ineffectual does not equate to unusual, opinionated, or different. If all of your trustees bar one have the same view on most topics, it may be the majority that needs some sharp  questioning.

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