Help for not for profit and charity trustees


Thinking about strategy is for some, difficult. The need to think in general terms, to imagine the future and to understand and analyse the past, is not it seems given to everyone. For charity boards this can be a problem since it is one of the key functions a board has to do.

I was thinking of this when I attended a regional meeting of a health organisation I am a member of (but not in any official capacity). The CE spent some time talking about the pressures the organisation was under. Cost pressures obviously, increasing demands from members needing help and various forms of competition were all factors he and his team were wrestling with. It was then thrown open to discussion for the 30 or so people present.

It is fair to say no delegate touched on the key strategic issues at all. There were the usual complaints about not getting the paperwork. Someone commenting on the size of the typeface which was difficult to read she said and someone suggested getting a speaker in to make the meetings more interesting. Other comments were of a similar nature and altogether of no value at all to the management team in their deliberations about the future of the organisation. True none of those were board members although they could in fact be elected so in future.

This sort of behaviour is sometimes mirrored in trustee meetings where the mention of strategy can paralyse those present. What to do? Firstly, starting with a blank sheet of paper is hard. Trustees need facts and information presented in meaningful ways to help them see the picture as it is now. As I say in my book, trends are vitally important. Tables of information more or less in raw form are of little if any value. Ideally the information needs to be set against what was intended at the start of the current cycle. What were we hoping to do and how well did we do it?

The need to consider outside influences using well known techniques such as STEEPLE to help. Again these can mushroom into lists of issues and there is a need to hone it down to the two or three key issues which are going to influence your future activities.

Scenario planning is also useful: if we do this, this is likely to happen.

So in short, the key points are:

  • Collect good information about current performance. Boil it down to the main facts so that the picture is clear
  • Use trend information so that what has been happening over time can be seen
  • Use graphics where helpful to give a visual picture
  • Analyse what you did well and less well against the previous strategy. Why were you successful in some cases and less so in others?
  • Look at outside influences using STEEPLE or similar. Just two or three key facts under each heading is usually enough
  • Look at various scenarios, if we do X what is likely to happen?
  • Involve the staff, or some of them at least, should go without saying since they are in touch with the day to day issues
  • A facilitator can be worth while. However well organised the session is done, the plain fact is that so many people plunge into detail and get distracted. You need someone to get people away from the detail and concentrate on the ‘big picture’
  • Finally, recognise that many do not like change certainly not radical change. They’re happy with incremental change but not change that might mean redundancy, or scaling up.

With some organisations, there is a problem of excessive politeness and too much deference. This results in hard truths not being stated or assumptions not being challenged. The result is that the session is largely a waste of time. One suggestion is to appoint someone to argue against the consensus almost like in a courtroom, making if you like, the case for the prosecution. If you can make it fun, so much the better!

Peter Curbishley

The author of How to be a Successful Trustee

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