The role of a charity’s Chair of Trustees is often crucial in setting the tone, standard and good practice within the charity. But there are many myths about what powers Chairs have; often assuming that Chairs have increased powers or rights of veto. This article seeks to set out some practical considerations for all Chairs and future Chairs to consider.
Is your Chair acting as Chair of the Charity as a whole or Chair of Trustees’ meetings only? In reality, the answer is both but Chairs are often selected purely on the basis of their skills in chairing Trustees’ meetings without necessarily considering the wider skills required from the wider role of representing the charity in more of an ambassadorial role.
What is the expectation of the Chair? A role description can be useful to clarify what is expected from the Chair in terms of their specific tasks, responsibilities and time commitment. This can help to avoid any potential disputes about whether an individual us fulfilling their role or not.
Depending on the charity and its activities, the time commitment can be onerous and thought should be given as to whether potential candidates have the time, as well as the skills, to carry out that role. Being appointed as Chair shouldn’t be a ‘reward’ for past service, nor should it be a role for life. The changing needs of the charity should always be borne in mind in considering whether the existing Chair is still what the charity needs or whether different skills and input are needed.
It is often the Chair primarily who sets the tone and style for the Trustees as a group, for interactions with the charity’s employees, particularly the Chief Executive, but also for the charity’s external reputation and perception. Care should be taken in the use of language and behaviour. Poor behaviour in Trustees’ meetings should be addressed in a timely manner so that unacceptable practices do not become accepted habit.
A good Chair will draw out the skills and talents of the Trustees individually and collectively so that less confident Trustees are as able to contribute their knowledge and experience as much as more vocal Trustees. Decisions are made collectively, i.e. by simple majority, but it is important to respect that all Trustees are equal so discussions and decision-making should not be dominated by a smaller group of Trustees.
The Chair can act as a sounding board for the other Trustees who can share any grievances or concerns privately so that they can be resolved where possible and allow the charity to operate as efficiently as possible. The Chair should be available (within reason) to all the Trustees, including where any issues may be about the Chair themselves.
As well as evaluating the performance of the Trustees collectively, the Chair should be particularly conscious of their own performance in their role and ask whether this is as effective as it could be, is training required, is feedback sought from the other Trustees and is this Chair still what the charity needs? Time should be invested in both the Chair’s own role but also the continued effective performance of the Board of Trustees as a whole.
In my experience, where there are tricky situations or problems within the Board of Trustees, it is expected that the Chair will be the one to address those issues. This may not always be possible, and it isn’t the sole responsibility of the Chair to do so, but here are some possible areas to address:-
Silent Trustees – as mentioned previously, some Trustees may be less confident and vocal than others and should be encouraged, primarily by the Chair, to contribute to the discussion and decision making. But where a Trustee is so silent at meetings there is effectively no visible contribution at all, this should be explored in a one to one discussion between the Chair and the Trustee concerned.
Inconsistent attendees – The expectation is that all Trustees will attend all Trustees’ meetings but clearly, that will not always be possible due to unforeseen events or urgent matters. However, where particular Trustees are consistently inconsistent in their attendance, this should be specifically discussed with the individual Trustees to determine whether the Trustee has the time available to devote to the role. Be aware though that there may be other reasons for not attending such as, meetings are not focussed, they last too long, they discuss matters that have already been decided, there is no real purpose to them etc.
Over-dominant Trustees – The Chair can be thought of as the coach of a team giving individual players the chance to shine in their particular strengths. What can be hard to manage in practice is over-dominance by one or more Trustees, perhaps where they have been in post for the longest period. One way of identifying this may be to consider the number of Trustees in total and then evaluating whether each Trustee is given (roughly) the same amount of ‘air-time’ at meetings or are some Trustees unable to put their views across because it is the same person or persons whose voices are heard more than others.
Selective involvement – Trustees are expected to share their knowledge and experience with their fellow Trustees so that the charity can make the most informed decision possible. This doesn’t mean that when discussion is on an item that the Trustee is not experienced in or isn’t interested in that they don’t contribute at all.
Ill-prepared Trustees – It is often quickly apparent but sometimes rarely mentioned when Trustees attend meetings without having prepared at all. A fellow former Trustee attended meetings with his own letter-opener and sealed envelope of Trustee papers being the most obvious clue to lack of advance preparation! Meetings could be better managed and possible take less time if all Trustees came to the meeting well prepared and ready to discuss the items on the agenda.
Attendance only Trustees – Whilst attendance at meetings is important, there is more to it than just turning up. Again, this is about being clear about expectations of Trustees and being proactive in addressing any bad habits that may start to creep in before they become accepted practice.
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