Rick Bond explains the need to prune the dead wood from your board of trustees to encourage new growth.
I had the car fixed last week. It has needed fixing for the past six months. I hardly noticed the gradual deterioration in its performance. Now that it’s mended I wonder why I took so long. Driving is suddenly more pleasurable – and if I’d fixed it when the problem started it would have cost a lot less in time and money. That’s often how it is when boards comprise long-standing trustees, able, through a clause in their Articles of Association, to be re-elected every three years. It’s not that they all want to stay, but in the absence of any new candidates appearing when AGM/election papers are produced, they agree to hang on rather than leave you in the lurch. This stagnation creeps almost imperceptibly through the organisation, often despite the best endeavours of staff. Ultimately, if allowed to continue unchecked, the only thing keeping the organisation functioning is its staff – working way beyond the call of duty to keep the place open. Funders inevitably notice this, with obvious consequences for future support.
I’ve been working with an established arts organisation which, for the past few years, has muddled through with a board of long-serving, well-intentioned but wholly dormant trustees. The organisation is trying to retain the informal approach that worked twenty years ago, when the organisation was much smaller. It has experienced a gradual decline in funding and political support, which it blamed on circumstances beyond its control. Its entire risk strategy appeared to be: “someone will bail us out – they always do”. Something had to change, but the organisation was not huge and did not have money to throw at the challenge. But, last year, something happened: Three new trustees came on board, and three dormant trustees were graciously retired. What an impact the new faces have begun to make!
What happened? Well, nothing major, just the application of common sense. But how often do we take time out to invest in some common sense thinking? Guided by a little external facilitation, the Chair and the Director took the issue of revitalising the board more seriously. Quickly appreciating that re-motivating the majority of existing trustees was a long shot, they set about forming a cunning plan. This was designed to ensure a regular injection of fresh blood every three years: people who would be able and willing to justify their appointments. And it was easily manageable – that was the really cunning bit. The plan created a framework which meant that: it would be legally necessary to appoint new trustees at suitably regular intervals, because old trustees would have to retire (thus ensuring the board had no home for dead wood); the board really knew the type of trustee they required and what to expect of them; the board had to improve their appeal to attract the type of candidates they were seeking; they would be spoilt for choice, come the AGM and election time.
The plan was not exactly rocket science, but it addressed important issues including the legal framework needed to keep a high turnover of Trustees, the importance of forward planning, and the right training once you have appointed the right people. As in all good plans, success wasn’t due to one big thing but to a number of small, manageable tasks delivered consistently.
Making it legal
First, the Articles of Association were amended so that it became impossible for a trustee to serve more than two terms unless elected Chair. This meant that Trustees could serve for a maximum of six years (nine if Chair), and would then be ineligible for election for at least twelve months. The board therefore had to take the issue of succession planning seriously, as it meant three successors having to be found every year. Succession planning was included as a standard item on the agenda at every board meeting.
Second, to provide content for the agenda item, the board set up an appointments sub-committee to prepare a strategy, to research, cultivate and recruit new trustees. This afforded plenty of time to identify potential candidates, get to know them properly and establish if and how they might make a valuable contribution to the board’s affairs. Strangely, Succession Planning become one of the mot popular agenda items and a rich vein of productive discussion.
Who do we want?
The next step was to ensure the board knew the type of trustee required, and what to expect of them. In compliance with the Charities Act 2006, the board and senior management staff began to spend time preparing job descriptions embracing the range of skills and experience the board required. As times change, so does the need for different types of trustee. An essential skill during a period of capital refurbishment would be less of a priority once the work had been completed. Requiring trustees to step away after two terms creates an opportunity to adjust board requirements to suit current needs. It was interesting to see how trustees attached themselves to the job descriptions as they emerged. For some there were natural fits, but at least one trustee in the ‘deadwood’ category realised their days were numbered and offered to be the first to step down with grace. The board now plans to introduce exit interviews with retiring trustees, to ascertain what other improvements could be made.
As many of us have discovered, good people rise to the challenge. Knowing that you are being invited to do a clearly defined job makes membership more appealing. It also weeds out the kind of trustee who wants prestige without commitment. Clearly, people were asked because they had the skills to match the job description. The other appealing factor was the time limitation. Trustees knew they could give their all for a fixed period of time and then walk away – no guilt trips, just a farewell party and grateful thanks.
A detailed board manual was prepared, together with an induction programme, which included trustees acting as ‘buddies’ to new board members during their first year. A ‘reciprocal promise’ was also included in the contract – in which trustees committed to support staff in return for a reciprocal promise of support from staff. Finally, the long period of cultivation offered opportunities for potential trustees to get involved with, or observe, the organisation at work; meeting staff, trustees and even users. Candidates were asked for their opinions, and given the opportunity to be co-opted to a sub-committee or working party for a period of mutual appraisal. The creation of a large pool of candidates in a relatively small community began to create a word of mouth factor that intensified interest in serving, resulting in some new and extremely influential people throwing their hats into the ring. It even had a knock-on effect on ticket sales.
Spoilt for choice
At each board meeting, trustees were responsible for suggesting names of potential candidates. If the board approved, then a trustee would implement an informal ‘getting to know you’ programme. Over a period of two to three months it is possible to get a real feel for a person’s commitment and capabilities. The board also placed media advertisements. All this helped to make the organisation a talking point in the right circles. Such activities could only help to improve stakeholders’ confidence in the improving quality of the board.
So, a lot of work perhaps, although relatively little cost, and the results in this case were very positive. A newly retired Temple Barrister, Managing Director of a large regional business and an ex-Fundraising Director of a blue-chip charity, came on board. The rest is not yet history – it’s still being made, but an organisation that most had given up for dead only eighteen months ago, has begun to transform itself as a result of making succession happen properly. One stakeholder has already suspended their threat to withdraw funding, while a second has agreed a 60% uplift. Not a bad result in such challenging times!