Being a trustee of a Christian charity is, in my mind, a great calling. It is a real act of service; in many ways, an act of worship (Romans 12:1) and, for sure, part of fulfilling an individual’s role as part of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). As I have worked with trustees of Christian charities over the last four decades, I have seen some great boards and achievements but I have also realised that there are some common weaknesses. Many trustee boards have a less clear understanding of the vision and for some this is, in practice, more a headache than a heart mission.
I wanted to outline some aspects that may contribute to this perspective and put forward some personal thoughts on what we can do to make our trustee boards the best they can be.
I regularly see church and charity leaders invest in a wide range of issues: vision, programs, staff, teams, policies etc. I do not often hear them use the word ‘investment’ when it comes to the approach to the trustee board. This may just be linguistics, but it can also be a different mind-set. There is that old adage that ‘the more we put in, the more we get out’: where we, as leaders, invest in something, the more that investment should reap dividends.
The Charity Commission make this statement at the beginning of its guide on being a charity trustee: ‘Charity trustees are the people who share ultimate responsibility for governing a charity and directing how it is managed and run.’ In my mind, those people are worth investing in if your church or charity’s work is worth doing!
In the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, the principle of ‘First Who, Then What – get the right people on the bus’ was expounded. Essentially, what this means is that those who build great organisations make sure ‘they have the right people on the bus and the right people in the key seats before they figure out where to drive the bus’. They think first about who and then about what. As the book explains: ‘When facing chaos and uncertainty, and you cannot possibly predict what's coming around the corner, your best "strategy" is to have a busload of people who can adapt to and perform brilliantly no matter what comes next. Great vision without great people is irrelevant.’
In many organisations, trustees are not the key visionaries but, in my experience, great charities are those with vision and strategy that are supported by great trustees. The starting point is getting the ‘right people on the bus’.
Crucially, in a Christian charity (church or otherwise), the trustees have to share in the faith vision of the charity. Having the same spiritual principles on which the charity is based is fundamental – otherwise the trustees can pull in different directions. Getting people on the bus means getting people on the same bus!
A few quick tips that I would suggest when considering your trustee board:
- Pray for the right people.
One of our sayings at Stewardship is ‘first pray and then do everything else’. Apply your faith actively in this area as much as any other.
- Look for the right people.
Sometimes the required number of board positions are filled (with a great sigh of relief) and then it’s ‘job done’ until numbers drop, or some other legal reason arises. Ask the question: “What are the needs we have on the board?”
- Consider character.
Skills are important but so also is character. Integrity, humility but also ability to challenge and, almost above all, being a team player.
- Consider diversity.
This isn’t a plea for political correctness but an understanding after more than 30 years in this field that diversity (in all sorts of ways: background, personality, experience, skills and beyond) reaps dividends. Decisions are easy if everyone thinks just like I do – the trouble is those decisions aren’t necessarily the best ones!
- Remember the legals.
Your charity governing document will often set out criteria. Also commonly, there are important issues over trustees (or people connected with them) receiving any form of payment from the charity.
Trustees, like disciples, are not just chosen but need developing.
They will need to:
- Have a good induction into the legal aspects of the charity and their role in it.
- Have access to good advisors and be encouraged to take advice.
- Understand the technical aspects of their role in the context of the ministry.
- Be supported in the time commitments so that they are effective in decisions.
Your trustee team will also need to understand not just the purpose, vision and technicalities of the charity but also the values and ethos. They need to understand the way the day-to-day leadership works; don’t forget they ‘share ultimate responsibility for governing a charity and directing how it is managed and run’ in the Charity Commission parlance – so you want them to understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of that (and be prepared for them to challenge those as well).
On the subject of challenge, there was a legal judgement earlier this year on the financial failure of the charity, Kids Company. One of the statements from the judge about the positive qualities of the trustees was that the relationship between the board and the CEO was ‘very good’ and while the CEO may have had a strong personality, it was arguably necessary for such a role and the trustees confirmed they felt able to challenge her. A culture of healthy challenge is an important aspect of governance and no less so in a church or faith-based charity.
A good Board of Trustees is critical to a charity’s long-term success. This is as true of a church and Christian mission or ministry charity as much as any other. They are worth giving time to and the results should more than repay the investment.