Good governance matters for beneficiaries and communities

John TizardYou might be tempted to think that one of the great strengths of the voluntary and community sector, and indeed the wider social sector, is that, as they are not the public or business sectors, they are not bound by the latter sectors’ governance systems and standards. If so, then you would be wrong.

Of course, many organisations in the voluntary and community sectors are incorporated as either community interest or limited liability companies, and as a result are in fact subject to company law requirements. And many are in receipt of public money, either through grant or contract funding, and so are expected to practice high standards of accountability and probity.

My own view is that the community, voluntary and social sectors need to have great governance, not just to meet legal conditions and to comply with the requirements and expectations of their funders but because good governance makes for a better organisation and in the end, facilitates more successful outcomes.

Good governance does not have to be bureaucratic, any more than it has to stifle innovation and great outcomes.  It should be proportionate to the size and risks involved in the organisation and its activities.  It should not demand too much of staff or trustees but it absolutely must require them to take it very seriously, and to have to think and commit.

Over the years, I have served on a number of boards in the public, social, charity and business sectors and worked with boards in an executive role. I currently chair an Academy governors’ board and serve on several charity trustees boards.  I also hold some non-executive appointments in small businesses.  This breadth of experience and perspective has given me periodic cause to reflect on what makes for a good board member and how they contribute to the development of the organisation – and more importantly, to the achievement of its mission.

There is a book to be written on the role of the board member, I am sure, but space, time and frankly the need to focus prevents my attempting that now.  I do, however,  feel the need to address two key roles and responsibilities of good board members – most especially in the social, charity and community sectors, as well as the public sector.  The business sector, with the principal importance of shareholders, is clearly different (although, not as much as many people sometimes claim).  And whilst concentrating in this thought piece on just two aspects, I am not belittling or dismissing the importance of board members’ other responsibilities.

So, what are these two key roles and responsibilities that currently have me exercised?

They are to always consider the needs and aspirations of a charity or public body’s beneficiaries, users and the wider community; and the need to act as a ‘critical friend’ to executives and staff.

Championing beneficiaries, users and the wider community
Ideally, there will be service users and representatives of communities on these boards. Sadly, however, this is not the case in far too many charities.  Regardless, all board members should ensure that they know and take efforts to remain constantly informed as to the views, ideas, needs and aspirations of service users and other stakeholders – and they should champion these. For example, as governor of an Academy, I see my role as being to champion the interests of the pupils, students, parents and local community.  Of course, there are other accountabilities, some of which are set out in statute but the prime focus must always be on the users and communities. Likewise, as a charity trustee, I hope that I am always focused on what matters to the charity’s beneficiaries and mission.

Before, during and after a board meeting, one should be asking: what does this mean for our beneficiaries and mission; how could this benefit or not benefit our beneficiaries and mission; and similar questions.  Board members must ask each other these questions and put them to the organisation’s executives too.  It is always good when there is evidence available to support the answers, including direct views and experiences from service users, beneficiaries and communities.

Of course, board members in every sector and every organisation must have concern for: the wellbeing and sustainability of the organisation; for probity; and to ensure that it is complying with legislation and contractual commitments. In terms of the latter, board members should only agree to contracts that are beneficial to their beneficiaries, service users or missions and which underpin their values.  Specifically, they must ensure that executives do not enter in arrangements that do not meet these criteria.

The need to act as a ‘critical friend’
The second and very much related core role and responsibility of a board member in any sector but particularly the school, charity, social, community and voluntary sectors is to challenge the chief executive and senior team.  Challenging as a ‘critical friend’ should not be interpreted as intimidation or bullying – but it should be robust. And specifically, it should be based on the board member’s responsibilities and accountabilities to the mission, beneficiaries, service users and other stakeholders.

Sometimes, the board member has a professional expertise or personal experience that enables them to ask the informed question and propose some alternative or new approach – indeed, this may well be why they have been appointed to the board in the first place. Of course, board members must not assume managerial or executive roles intentionally or unintentionally – and unfortunately, I have seen this happen much too often, and almost always to the detriment of an organisation and its effectiveness.

Equally, the intelligent and inquisitive question, challenge and suggestion from the ‘lay member’ of the board can make a major contribution to the health and impact of an organisation, and these may be promoted at a Board meeting or between meetings. Of course, common sense and basic courtesy should dictate how and when to make such interventions – but to be effective, trustees and board members should always feel empowered and be encouraged to offer advice and constructive challenge at all times.  And chairs of boards and chief executives should have the courage and foresight to welcome and encourage board members and trustees to act in this way – for this is good governance in action, and can only benefit the organisation in the long run.

Scrutiny is closely related to the challenge role and arguably part of it. The role of board members, school governors and trustees is to: scrutinise the work of the executives; the impact of the organisation and its specific projects; its use of resources and value for money; and its standards of governance and probity.

I appreciate that all of this may sound a tad too ambitious for small community organisations or school governing bodies. However, in my experience, the most effective community organisations and governing bodies do indeed have sound governance with supportive, challenging and confident, ideas-generating trustees and boards.

Strong communities and effective community action require strong vibrant local organisations with great leadership, much passion, principled values, an assured clarity of purpose, and above all, to ensure longevity and success, good and sound governance.

The community, voluntary and social sectors have no need to be shy about good governance – indeed, it should be an exemplar of best practice.


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Leon Panitzke
Leon Panitzke
10 years ago

John, we are currently loooking at some work with the Good Governance Institute which may be of interest to you. Let me know if you want more information.

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