Opportunity knocks

Now is an opportune time for HR directors to enhance the skills of key executives by encouraging them to join a charity as a trustee. This could mean giving them time off to attend board meetings or go on a secondment.

Next spring the 166,000-plus charities registered in England and Wales, which together have an annual income of £34bn, will be challenged by the Charity Commission to make their policies and procedures more transparent.

This new culture of increased professionalism means that HR managers who pursue the trustee option for senior staff could deliver a three-way benefit – for the employer, the employee and the charity.

As charities move into a more rigorous climate of openness and accountability, executives making the switch from a commercial background could take back valuable board-level experience to their employer. Also, the employing company can incorporate the secondment into its corporate social responsibility programme. At the same time individuals can improve their own personal development, while the charity has the opportunity to gain practical commercial insight. Potentially, it’s a win-win-win situation. But there are some hurdles to overcome.

Having worked in the charity sector on both sides of the fence, as chief executive of the Royal Opera House and the Arts Council, and as a trustee, I know how stimulating working for a charity can be. Far from the outdated and prejudiced view that charities are a cosy backwater, my experience is that in many ways it can be a challenging environment, and a large charity can be more complex to run than a commercial organisation.

Although full of change and turmoil, my time at the Royal Opera remains one of my major points of reference when thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of the voluntary sector. For seven months, under intense media and public scrutiny, I learned at close quarters how people behave in groups and individually when under extreme stress – myself included.

The natural tendency is for everyone to want to dive in to solve a problem. It’s exactly at this point that the fundamental difference between the voluntary and the private sector emerges.

In the private sector, the board is a mix of the executives involved in the day-to-day running of the business, and the non-executives. All are legally liable for the organisation.

In the voluntary sector, no-one who is paid by the charity can sit on the board. So the paid executives, who are running the charity, cannot be board members – the unpaid trustees who make up the board are legally liable.

This arrangement can create tensions between the board and the executive and the risk is that when the trustees feel vulnerable, they respond by interfering in what is properly the job of the executive. It’s vital, therefore, that trustees remember that the managers who are running the show day-to-day might actually have a better understanding of what is going on.

Another important difference is the bottom line.

In business, this is to make a profit. But charities have to wrestle with a dual objective – to achieve their vision, generally by delivering their particular service, while at the same time remaining financially sustainable.

What then does it take to become a trustee? Training is important. We see a large number of people who want to join a charity board, but difficulties can crop up if corporate executives move into the sector without fully understanding the culture. They can end up applying their existing skills inappropriately, and the important contribution they could make doesn’t find a home.

Equally, the charities need to select their trustees rationally and methodically, and identify skills gaps by having a clearly articulated sense of the knowledge and experience already represented on the trustee board. Too often charities are not explicit about their expectations of trustees when they make new appointments.

Anyone considering becoming a trustee should be quite clear in their own mind what they are bringing to the party. It might be specialist, professional skills. It might be your capacity to raise money. This isn’t a prerequisite in this country, but it is in the US.

There, they say that to be a charity board member you need to “give, get or get off”. Our charities would be worse off if we adopted this approach, because there are many people out there who can make a valuable contribution, but who neither have a lot of money of their own nor access to a network of rich contacts.

As UK charities move into a new phase of openness, the demand for trustees with sound business experience will grow. Executives considering taking up the charity challenge should contact the Charity Commission, which offers general advice and useful links. The rewards for taking on a charity role can be immense, but it’s important to start out on the right footing. With good training and guidance, the UK’s executives can provide charities with an increasingly expert pool of talent.


Mary Allen is the former chief executive of the Royal Opera House and the Arts Council. She is chairman of the Breast Cancer Campaign and runs a charity trustee training and mentoring programme for career counsellors IDDAS.

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