I was recently asked by the Chair of my board to present a very brief taster on charity governance to another Board of Trustees which he also sits on. This is a large and well established charity working in the culture sector – and it is great that they wanted to refresh their overview of governance challenges and implications in the light of the changing third sector landscape, despite the fact that the organisation is well established and successful.

15 minutes is not long enough to teach anyone about governance, so what I wanted to do was to give a flavour of the context within which Charity Boards operate, and a little bit of information about two recent pieces of research – one about the effectiveness of Trustee Boards from Trustee perspectives, and one about the support available for trustees, from the provider perspective. (Taken on Trust – the Awareness and Effectiveness of Charity Trustees in England and Wales and Taken on Trust – the Provider Perspective on Advice and Support for Charity Trustees.

Being a Trustee can be an immensely rewarding experience, but there are not insignificant challenges and responsibilities. There are different challenges to consider for Charities with paid staff, and those with no paid staff, yet generally governance training seems to be a one size fits all approach. Trustees tend, overwhelmingly, to get support from one another rather than bringing in external support, and when they do access external support, don’t necessarily know exactly what it is they need support with. I read the research with interest, as a provider, and it has started some conversations about how Governance Training could be better delivered, more responsive, and more about helping Charity Board’s to grow over time.

The reason I felt the new Code of Governance would be a good framework to present to this particular Board is because it considers the fundamental responsibilities to be met, and provides a framework for continuing improvement. This is about recognising there is a changing environment within which the sector operates, and whilst the operational disciplines of charities are immensely diverse, the fundamental areas of charity governance remain common. The Code provides a clear set of parameters within which development and capacity building should take place. And a good provider should be able to tailor their support to the right level for the Board requiring support. The Code’s framework should ensure that Trustees are tuned-in to new developments, such as GDPR, and help them to be ready to scan the environment for such developments which may impact upon their work.

At the session, one Trustee asked me to say a little about how the new Code of Governance came about and how it came to supersede the Charity Commission’s own Hallmarks of a Well-Run Charity.

This version of the Code is actually the 3rd iteration and it has been in existence for 12 years, previously known as ‘Good Governance: A Code for the Voluntary and Community Sector’. Hallmarks of a Well-Run Charity is / was a Charity Commission guidance document creating a minimum standard, whereas the code is ‘sector-led’ (in that it has oversight from a broad steering group including sector representation and is informed by sector consultation) and is aspirational therefore promoting a culture of continuous improvement. The Charity Commission supports the Code because it wants to put the sector in the driving seat of defining what good practice should be. The revised Code was intended to be a big change, and aimed to reflect the growing recognition that skills, behaviours, support for leaders and the quality of interpersonal relationships between trustees and staff are just as important as policies and procedures, but I (personally) don’t think it was anticipated that it would be received so wholeheartedly, in effect replacing the Charity Commission’s own framework of Good Practice. The Charity Commission has stated that is welcomes the emphasis on values and behaviours as its own research shows these to be key drivers of public trust and confidence in charities. It’s also about consistency, which aids public trust – ALL charities, whatever their sub-sector or discipline, will adhere to these principles and seek continuous improvement in them as fundamental to success.

The latest iteration sets out the highest standards that have ever been included in the Code and was informed by responses from over 200 sector organisations (though, in the grand scheme of things, not very many of the 160,000 registered Charities!).

The reason for the Charity Commission’s endorsement is precisely because it is sector-led and aspirational – it recognises that Charity boards need to be able to respond to a rapid pace of change in structure, regulation, compliance, public accountability etc – and the framework contained within the Code sets the clear parameters within which this learning and growth needs to happen. It also recognised that its ‘Hallmarks’, as I had told this Board at the meeting, enabled Charity’s to tick things off and think ‘we’ve done that’ and think no more about it! The Code is a tool for continuous improvement and will, presumably, now evolve as regulation, landscape etc evolves. It’s a good thing, it will stretch us all, CEOs and Trustees, but it is for absolutely the right reasons, and formally ‘signing up’ to it, by acknowledging that fact on literature, websites and so on will likely be a ‘good’ thing (as long as Charity boards and senior staff teams genuinely and robustly commit to undertaking the work it will involve)

The new standards and recommended good practice, and the research referred to above can be found by following these links:

https://www.charitygovernancecode.org/en

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/taken-on-trust-awareness-and-effectiveness-of-charity-trustees-in-england-and-wales

(both pieces of research and the Government response available here)