Bringing Good Governance to Life

_ Janine Edwards _

As we head into Trustees Week 1st to 5th November 2021, the FSI’s Commercial Director, Janine Edwards, reflects on what good governance means and how small charities can bring this to life.

An essential question we ask in one of our Trustee workshops at the FSI is "What does good governance mean to you?". The initial responses generally reflect what we think trusteeship should be: clear on mission and purpose; trustees who are engaged and involved; appropriate risk management; compliant with legal and regulatory requirements; sound financial management and controls.

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But, once we delve a little deeper, and we start to explore some of the less tangible aspects of governance like good relationships – not just between the board and exec or board and Chair but also the board members themselves, robust discussion and healthy debate to inform decision-making, a board that reflects on its own effectiveness and impact, we see that our preconceptions about good governance aren’t always what’s needed.

It can be challenging at the best of times to open up conversations with your board about these aspects of governance – especially with the additional upheaval of the last 18 months, where survival has been the main focus. However, strong and effective governance is even more important in these times, so here are some ideas for action that can help:

1. Introduce some gentle reflection into your board meetings. A Chair from a previous board I was on asked each of us to share one word at the end of each meeting. The first time it felt a bit uncomfortable for some of us, but as time went on it became something we considered of at the beginning of the meeting – conscious of what word we wanted to leave our colleagues with.

2. Encourage your board to discuss the behaviours and expectations that are important to them. Many organisations we work with don’t have a Code of Conduct (or other document in place) that makes expectations clear. Or, sometimes they have a template that they found and did some quick editing to, usually a ‘find/replace’ on the charity name. In our experience, it’s actually the process that tends to be even more important than the end result, this way, all trustees have an opportunity to share what behaviours are important to them, and can shape the Code of Conduct.

3. Identify ways to bring a broader or different perspective to trustee discussions. One funder we work with invites their grantees to trustee meetings, to share their experiences and to help trustees understand what the day-to-day world is for them. This is such a vital input when, as trustees, we can often feel removed from the work and impact. Now might be the time to think about how you could adapt this to your own Board. It might not always be possible (or appropriate) for beneficiaries to join a Board meeting, but could a staff member or volunteer be invited to share a case study? Before entering into any really big discussions and decisions, can you remind trustees of your mission, vision and values and centre them at the heart of decisions?

4. Use the Charity Governance Code to open up a conversation with trustees about what ‘good’ looks like and build a shared understanding. This practical tool sets out a series of principles, with rationale and outcomes, to support strong and effective governance. At the FSI, we’ve developed a Board Assessment questionnaire based on the Governance Code, and then facilitated conversations with Boards to review the results and develop an action plan. There is often a lot of consensus on several of the principles but the most interesting discussions emerge where there are very different views amongst trustees. Boards have told us that they valued the opportunity to surface these tensions and discuss them in an open and constructive way.