Creating an effective trustee board

How do you become and develop as an effective trustee board?

In this article I explore the  dimensions of board effectiveness and present a model that can be used to support trustees in becoming and developing as an effective trustee board.

The Charity Governance Code principle 5 gives us a definition to work with and states ‘The board works as an effective team, using the appropriate balance of skills, experience, backgrounds and knowledge to make informed decisions.’

The first dimension of an effective trustee board

Let’s start by looking at the balance of skills, experience, backgrounds and knowledge as the first dimension of board effectiveness.

A good starting point is to look at the spread of skills and experience of the trustees. Many charities do this and have a skills matrix that records the skills the trustees have. Trustees will have skills in both sector/subject matter expertise and in key specialist areas such as finance, legal, IT, communications etc. It is possible to build an indicator of depth of experience into this using perhaps a numerical scale or colour coding.  This approach gives a good picture of skills and experience levels but does not build in information around different backgrounds and knowledge.

In general terms an effective trustee board would have:

  • A strong diverse spread of skills that is appropriate for the charity
  • Experience in depth in the critical areas
  • A group of people who have differing backgrounds
  • People who provide diverse perspectives on the work of the charity.

The ideal balance of skills, experience, backgrounds and knowledge will be unique for each charity. This could for example include trustees who represent beneficiary and other key stakeholder perspectives.

So if we start with a very basic skills list and move towards the more detailed description for an effective trustee board this gives us a scale.  We can use this to assess this dimension of board effectiveness. It is, of course, essential that it is underpinned with all trustees having a sound understanding of the charity; it’s aims and work.

The second dimension of an effective trustee board

Creating a group of people with strong diverse perspectives is great for ensuring really robust decision-making as long as the power that lies within the group is truly harnessed in effective teamwork.

This gives us the second dimension, effective teamwork, that we can use to examine board effectiveness.

A good starting point for a scale on this is where the board meet, as regularly as is needed, attendance is good, people participate in discussions and are engaged in the work of the board.

The ideal end of the scale can be described as a group who

  • know why they are involved
  • understand and are committed to the work they are doing and
  • who all know, trust each other and appreciate the different strengths people bring. 

The culture that exists within the group allows for robust discussion where people feel secure and able to challenge, question and present different perspectives and where difficult topics are discussed and dealt with.

 

A model for creating an effective trustee board

By putting the scales for each dimension together we can create a model that can be used to assess and develop board effectiveness.

For example:

The scales on each axis can be defined by working with the board and senior executives of  the charity   Then the trustee board make an honest assessment of where they currently are and where they want to be. This information can be used to create prioritised actions to develop the board and monitor progress.

To get a meaningful model for your charity will require effort and time from those involved. It will be worthwhile as you create a model that will allow the trustee board to set themselves up and develop to continue to be effective in the strategic leadership of their charity to meet its aims.

It creates a great platform for the board to make those informed decisions that propel your charity forwards.

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