Help for not for profit and charity trustees

How much information?

the issue of how much information trustees need often leads to problems

Everyone can agree that information is vital for anyone in a management position in an organisation and that applies to trustees and directors of not for profits. The question is: how much do they need? And that is where the problem arises.

In simple terms, if the trustees get more and more information several things can happen. Firstly, they can become overloaded and seeing the wood for the trees becomes ever harder. Secondly, those trustees with a predilection for detail, can start asking more and more questions about the fine details and raising queries about relatively minor points. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the managers can begin to feel that the trustees are getting too close to interfering in the management of the organisation and second-guessing their decisions. This can be both annoying and demoralising.

Which means careful thought needs to be given to how much, and in what form, the board gets in the way of what’s going on. I suggest the board should aim for relatively ‘high level’ information on some of the main issues which are important to the progress of the organisation. I touched on this in an earlier post about the agenda. In that, I suggest some of the key elements a board meeting should cover. Having decided on what key elements the board needs information on, it then needs to be agreed, how it is to be presented. The golden rule is ‘less is more’. I find management accounts which give me huge amount of detail about things I am really not interested in – such as how much the water bill is or how much is spent on stationery – but provide no ratios or percentages, to be rather annoying.

There may be merit in giving a mass of information about wages and related people costs, but what I suggest is more helpful to know is a) what proportion staff costs are in relation to income and b) how that is changing (if it is) over time – quarter by quarter perhaps. If this percentage is slowly rising, then trustees can ask the CEO is there a reason?

Another point here is that trustees want to be reassured that the managers know what is going on and that they have the relevant information themselves. During discussions around this topic, staff can sometimes ask what it is you (i.e. the trustees) need with the inference that you need something different. You don’t. As I said above, less is more. You want the headlines so to speak but you do want to know that it is information they have and are looking at.

I devote quite a lot of space to this topic in my book and one of my suggestions is the need for an information plan. It’s interesting that charities have lists of policies and strategy documents etc but an information plan – the glue which holds the whole thing together – is something of a rarity.

We should remember Albert Einstein’s comment that ‘information is not knowledge’. How information is presented and understood is key and it needs careful thought.

Peter Curbishley

Author of How to be a Successful Trustee ISBN 978-1-913012-61-8

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