Streamlining the Samaritans

Samaritans is a registered charity, founded in 1953, which offers 24-hour confidential emotional support to people in distress. The service is offered by 17,000 trained volunteers across 203 separate branches in the UK.

In 2004, Samaritans’ volunteers responded to more than 4.7 million pleas for help by phone, e-mail, letter and face-to-face. The charity raises funds from individuals, companies, trust and statutory sources.

The challenge

Samaritans’ council of management wanted to streamline the governing structure of the charity to improve decision-making and increase effectiveness. This included selecting a new, smaller trustee board of 15 members. Formerly, all 203 branch directors acted as trustees of the charity, taking on the legal, financial and other responsibilities of the role, as well as the needs of managing a branch.

Daphne Pullen, chair of Samaritans during the restructure, said the challenges of running a successful charity in the 21st century meant this original structure was becoming too cumbersome.

“The old board used to meet just twice a year, so it was difficult for them to make timely decisions on finance and investment issues. There was no capacity to react quickly. Also, the cost of bringing them together more often was too great,” she says.

This situation meant trustees had personal liability for issues they often had no control over because they met so infrequently, Pullen says.

The charity had attempted a re-governance project back in 2000, but it failed to get off the ground. However, when new chief executive David King joined in 2004, Pullen started to think about the process again.

“This time we thought more closely about the way to handle and communicate the process to members. People were worried a change in governance might change their right of representation and make them less important. So we wanted to protect that right and reassure them,” she says.

The solution

Pullen approached Jane Burt, a former HR director at high-street bank Abbey and a long-standing volunteer at the charity, to design and run the recruitment and selection process for the new trustee board.

But the timeframe to complete the process was a challenge. The charity wanted to finalise and agree the new structure before the next meeting of its council, scheduled for January 2006. So, beginning the process in late September 2005, Burt had just a three-month timeframe to work in.

“We also had a selection committee that was geographically diverse, so it was difficult to get people to come together in one place,” says Burt.

A working party put together a six-person selection committee comprised of new chairman Steve Evans, Burt and four other Samaritans volunteers.

Burt came up with the competencies on which to judge the applicants, looking specifically at the skills base and value-set that the new board would need.

“I tried to cover a full range of skills: training, HR, legal, mental health, finance. An understanding of how an organisation runs in the voluntary sector was also important,” Burt says.

She also ran a training session on competency-based interviewing as not everyone had used this method before.

What followed was a marathon recruitment effort over three long days involving panel interviews for 40 candidates. “We started at 8am and finished at 9.30pm, with a decision meeting the following weekend,” says Burt. “It was incredibly hard work.”

The outcome

Fourteen new trustees have been appointed so far. The majority of the new trustees are Samaritans volunteers, with the remainder external appointments. This reassures the charity’s workforce that their rights will be properly represented in the future, says Pullen.

“The new trustees are expert individuals and will be making valued decisions. The charity will be better served by the new trustee board,” she says.

Burt adds: “We have had a 100% acceptance rate so far when offering the roles. That is a fantastic feeling. The selection process was a really rewarding experience and I’m pleased with how it went.”

At the end of January, members of Samaritans voted overwhelmingly to accept the changes to the governing structure, which also include a new advisory council, selection committee and audit and risk committee. The new trustee board will meet every two months and receive advice from the slimmed-down council of Samaritans.

New chairman Steve Evans says the vote means a strong future for the charity.

“While our original structure served us well in the past, constructive changes to our governance were needed to enable us to progress. Our members have shown foresight in their decision to make the necessary changes,” he says.

What do trustees do?

In the case of charitable or other trust organisations, the term ‘board of trustees’ is frequently used to refer to a board of directors much like the boards that preside over private sector organisations.

Like directors, members of these boards are liable under company law, and are accountable for any decisions they make in directing the charity. They are, for example, responsible for keeping proper accounting records and for taking reasonable steps in the detection and prevention of fraud.

In the case of the Samaritans, the charity’s trustee board used to be comprised of 203 branch directors. Each branch director is now a member of the new Council of Samaritans, which advises the 15-person trustee board on key policy issues and how to develop the service.

The trustee perspective

Nicola Cornelius is a corporate lawyer at City law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham and has been working with Samaritans for about 18 months. She was the legal adviser to the governance working party and through that became interested in applying for a trustee role.

“Over the 12 months with the working party, I was inspired by the dedication and commitment of the Samaritan volunteers in the group,” she says. “I passionately believe in the charity’s vision for a society where fewer people die by suicide, so when the opportunity arose to apply for the trusteeship, I was very excited at the prospect of taking such an active role contributing to the organisation’s future.”

Cornelius found the whole interview experience very challenging. “It consisted of two 45-minute interviews with a panel of three people. It was extremely rigorous and I found it very demanding,” she says.

Cornelius took up the position as trustee at the end of January and is excited about the organisation’s future. “I hope to be able to contribute, not only with my legal skills, but also by encouraging the support of younger people, both as volunteers and in fundraising,” she says.

If I could do it again…

Selecting a new trustee board was a really rewarding process, but involved a lot of “grunt” work, according to Jane Burt, a former HR director who was approached to aid the selection process.

“It would have been nice to have had more time. But we had to co-ordinate a committee of very busy people, who were geographically spread across the UK,” she says.

“I would also have used specialist journals for recruitment advertising to ensure we attracted candidates with more of the skills that we wanted, such as finance, legal and HR.”

But good forward planning did make the task a lot more straightforward.

“We made sure everyone was on the same page and knew exactly what we were looking for,” says Burt.


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