Help for not for profit and charity trustees

Never mind the quality, feel the width

Many people are impressed by size and quantity. We enter a shop or showroom and are immediately impressed by the range and volume of stock on sale. Racks and racks of clothes in a store offer us choice or at least the illusion of choice. How many medals a sportsman or woman has won also impresses as does the number of cups that sports clubs have won in a season. Are we not impressed by someone who drives a big car?

But quantity isn’t everything. And in the case of being a trustee, there is a danger of being overwhelmed by the volume of material to the point that seeing the wood for the trees becomes quite hard. Staff naturally want to impress the board with all that they are doing. Volume of material – which essentially means reports – is the main way to do this. There are several problems with this however:

  • producing lengthy reports can be a means to show activity and not results. There are thus lists of meetings, conferences attended, training undertaken and other no doubt essential activity but which may not be central to advancing the strategy of the charity or not for profit.
  • in the same vein, the amount of material can obscure the achievements – what exactly has been changed or improved by the previous quarter’s or half-year’s activity? There is so much activity being described that the results are almost lost.
  • there is another, more human, problem as well. I have often been in meetings where a member of staff has presented a lengthy report, often with great pride, and gone through it in some detail, making it difficult for a trustee to probe other than to ask about minor details or small points of elucidation. It is difficult in these circumstances to say ‘that’s all very well and full marks for activity, but can you tell us what in fact has been achieved?’ It is a brave, and perhaps heartless, trustee who can do this!

So how to overcome this problem? We have to start with the strategy of the organisation and from that and the workplan for the year, and then agree in advance what information will be needed. This is often the missing link in the process. A lot of time is spent on the strategy and more time in preparing the work plan, but information needs?

I argue in my book, the need for an information plan which should be agreed in advance. Having decided what it is you are going to do, it is essential to work out how you’re going to monitor progress during the course of the year. What information is needed, how it is to be collected and how it will be presented to the board is all discussed with the staff in advance, hence they have a clear steer on they are to prepare their reports. It helps keep down irrelevant material and will inform the board about progress against the plan.

Information is the key and it is always surprising that so little attention is paid to working out what is needed, how it is to be analysed and in what form it is to be presented to the board.

The writer is the author of How to be a Successful Trustee ISBN 978-1-913012-61-8 and there is a chapter on this and the SCAPS model for information is discussed.

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