Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Doing governance

I have sat on a few boards during the past 20+ years. I have chaired a couple and am chair to one currently. I have been a treasurer and a secretary and a vice-chair - this latter often means that you end up as chair which can take you by surprise as happened to me earlier in the year. I have also worked in my consulting life with many boards and many more individual trustees.

What separates the good from the bad from the downright ugly? I think that the best are those who are ambitious - not for themselves but for the organisation.

For example I came onto a board of an organisation which owned an historic building (not a Unitarian one) and the board met twice a year and spent an hour at each meeting discussing the building. The organisation gave out its profits to local charities and it seemed that many trustees thought that this was much nicer than discussing building issues. When I suggested that we should meet more often and focus more on the building some of the trustees told me of their personal commitments - I respectfully said that this was not about them but about the organisation and we should do what we could to ensure that the organisation flourished.

(If people do not have the time to commit to doing it properly they should not be on a board - if you have a good person who cannot commit time to board meetings then use them as a special advisor to be called on when needed.)

Back to the example, needless to say many trustees left, although some stayed and have shown enormous commitment to the changes. We also have some enthusiastic new blood with skills needed to manage and improve a building. We have had to spend tens of thousands of pounds just to get the building safe let alone improved but at least we can sleep safe and sound in the knowledge that we are unlikely to be sued for negligence. However we still maintained our grant giving and improved the process now giving grants four times rather than twice a year.

We achieved this by splitting the work down so that we had specialists looking after the building, specialists looking after the business planning and specialists looking after the grant-giving. All three have been given equal weight.

We progressed from being a board which just wanted to let things tick over whilst feeling warm and fuzzy about our generosity as we gave out grants, to one which aspired to be something more than we were - in everything that we did. We focused on the building as the most important asset that we owned but we have also built up our profile by focusing on our other assets - the people on the board, our trustees - we have held our fist open AGM and have been working in real partnership with other organisations locally. We have used our skills and our networks to make progress.

So - what makes a good board? One that has aspirations for the organisation wanting it to be better, and it does this by focusing on its assets. In our communities this can mean a focus on a building, often on the maintenance side. However our assets are not just bricks and mortar - what do people involved in your faith community bring to the table in terms of skills and the contacts and networks that they belong to?

Or perhaps more importantly what are the human qualities that they bring - for example love, kindness, generosity of spirit, laughter, tears, a listening ear and a speaking mouth, busy hands and supportive arms?

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