Wednesday, July 28, 2010

'We're not a business'

I have heard this from fellow Unitarians and from people who work and volunteer for other charities and community groups.

There are clearly rules for charities including our faith communities. We must follow these and then there is good practice - which we can choose to follow or not. But there are insights to be gained from for example understanding how businesses behave just as there are insights to be gained from psychology as to how individuals behave. We do not become psychologists by learning from psychology so we don't become business people by learning from business methods.

Whilst some of the information available comes from business sources, much comes from a more general study of organisations whatever those organisations do. The question to ask is always, 'how helpful might this be?' and not, 'where does it come from?'.

I also have a very big bee in my bonnet about efficiency. Efficiency is not about rigid structures (indeed some of the most efficient organisations have very few formal structures), it is not about the bottom line (i.e. money) and it is not about emotionless process. Efficiency is about getting something done with the least effort without sacrificing quality. Efficiency also means that things get done rather than not done, and they get done the right number of times.

Just simple examples - flower rotas, milk rotas and cleaning rotas - ensure that the thing gets done (always have a contingency plan like some dried flowers, some long-life milk and an eye that misses the dust) and they get done the right number of times. For example they avoid - two people bringing the flowers, having three bottles of milk when you only need one, or people polishing the hymnbooks because everything else has been cleaned three times. These examples are reflective of broader issues of efficiency with for example finances, meetings or developing the organisation.

Some people are fantastic at developing processes and procedures and some aren't - if you have someone who is then cherish them and set them to work helping you (that is working with others and not for them) to make the most of what you have. Less time spent on inefficient activity means more time to do something else.

As I have written a few times, efficiency is a spiritual imperative - our time, our skills and our resources are finite and I believe that we are bound to make the best of what we have been given.

Leadership and management

Someone has asked me about leadership and management saying about the seeming conflict with leadership being about vision and boldness and management being about caution and detail.

First I guess the theory might be helpful. The webpage is quite helpful.

Leadership - which is the role of any board but which is a role which can be partly delegated or at least shared - is about vision and direction. Where are we going? We know that life and organisations change without any intervention - so maintaining the status quo also requires effort - if we do nothing we and our organisations die. Do we want the status quo or would we rather aim for something else, something more? As faith communities I think that we are duty bound to say that we want something more - I don't think anyone has the right to say that what we have is enough. This is not in terms of us as individuals but in terms of what we offer to the world - we need to be striving to be greater than we are.

In faith communities if we have a minister or lay-leader then we have an appointed spiritual leader - how that person chooses to realise that leadership is for them to decide - I would hope that they decide this with the community that they lead. Can this leadership be extricated from the leadership that the congregational committee (board) provide? Probably not and it is often this that creates tensions within our faith communities. The General Assembly has guidelines for developing the partnership between congregation and minister and they can be found here.

It would be great to be able to write that this is how it should be done and this is what works - but as ever our communities are much too varied and interesting for that. In some cases it is the opposite - there is a feeling that there is no leadership and people are either not willing or not able to recognise that leadership (individual or collective) is essential.

With leadership you get direction and with management you get a sense of both planning and implementing. Planning means saying how something will be done and for example what resources will be needed and implementing is then doing it. Management is about overseeing these stages - management does not have to be one person and more often than not in our communities many people have a role to manage a bit of the work.

So for example - one of our visions is to ensure that people are informed of what we are doing to encourage them to become more involved. I manage that bit of what we do by ensuring that we have newsletters, calendars, running a Facebook group, CDs and DVDs and by emailing/ringing people when required. This is not to say that I do it all - but it is my job to make sure it gets done. The 'making sure' bit is the management bit.

So leadership is indeed about vision and direction and management is about ensuring that that vision is followed by travelling in the desired direction. The two complement each other and are necessary for a successful organisation. Whilst we do not need to overformalise things we do need to ensure that we are efficient - because inefficiency hurts people by wasting their time and their energy and sometimes their money. To get the most from the least effort we need to act efficiently.

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?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The governing document

As stated in a previous posting there are several things that a trustee needs to be aware of - the first one is the organisation's governing document. Depending on the form that the organisation takes this document will have different names. A company has articles and memorandum of association.

The memorandum of association sets out the company's name, the proposed location of its registered office, a statement regarding the liability of its members. It also contains the company's object - that is, what it does. However since October 2009 it is possible not to have a restricted object for ordinary companies - but for a charitable company the object will need to be restricted to charitable purposes - which is about public benefit. The articles of association (often just called 'articles') contain the rules for the company's internal regulation and management e.g. the meeting schedule, who can call a special meeting, the quorum for meetings, what happens if the company needs winding up.

Most of our chapels and meeting houses will be unincorporated associations and so will have constitutions. I suspect that many of these documents are decades old. Here is Charity Commission guidance about constitutions.

Trusts have trust deeds.

So first, have a look at the governing document and see what you can and cannot do as an individual trustee and as a board. Is this document fit for purpose or could you update it a bit to (a) fit more accurately with how you actually do the governance now; (b) ensure that you have covered everything that you currently do; and (c) is clearer for trustees and others to understand what the organisation's powers are?

Don't rush headlong into wanting to change the governing document but keep it in mind as something you might like to do consider at some point in the next year or two. Then have it on your list of things to talk with other trustees about.

Whatever changes you may have in mind ensure that you are familiar with what it says so that you may work within it.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Good resources for trustees

Clearly if you are a trustee or considering becoming one you don't want to be overwhelmed by information but it is a good idea to know where to look if you want something clarifying or need further information. The three sources that I use most when I am supporting charities that I do my paid consultancy for or that I am on the board of are

** The Charity Commission Over the past ten years they have become much more approachable, their information is accessible and as they are the charity regulator we might ask, 'If they don't know then who else is going to?' (The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) and the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland).
** National Council for Voluntary Services (NCVO) and its sister site Get Legal which was set up to 'to enable organisations and their advisors to access clear information and guidance on the most appropriate legal form and governance structure for delivering their goals.; and
** Vol Resource This website looks a little old fashioned and a little tired but it is a mine of very helpful information.

The GA also has its own publication Help is at Hand which can be found here. The only problem with written material as opposed to web-based material is that it can go out of date and as this was written in 2007 it may be a good idea to check legal issues online to ensure that things have not changed.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What is a trustee?

There are two types of trustee - holding trustees and (managing) trustees. Where a charity is not incorporated it is not a legal entity and therefore cannot own property. So where there is property, as with chapels and meeting houses, someone has to legally own that. There are two types of owners possible

- holding trustees: who are people whose sole role is to hold the legal title to the property in their name (there are usually three+ holding trustees); and
- custodian trustees: which are incorporated organisations which hold the title to the property. The B&FUA (British and Foreign Unitarian Association) is often used to do this for both the General Assembly and its member congregations.

You can have a mix of holding and custodian trustees. Holding trustees should have no role in governing or administering the charity although in practice this often happens as there are so few people willing to take on such roles. There is also an official custodian who can hold the title of a property - this is administered through the Charity Commission.

Other (governing) trustees - the type that we are normally talk about - are the people entrusted with ensuring that a charitable organisation meets its charitable object. The object details what the organisation was set up to do, its reason to exist.

The three things that trustees must be very aware of are

** their charity's governing document (often called a constitution - more on this later) which includes its object;
** the law of the land (charity law and more general law e.g. health & safety, equal opportunities and employment); and
** good practice for running charities. Being aware of good practice and aiming to work in such a way should ensure that the charity's resources - time, effort, skills, money etc - are used efficiently.

Trustees have clear legal duties when it comes to their trustee role. They are individually and severally (i.e. as a board) liable for the charity and depending on the legal form of the charity may or may not have financially limited liability. But limited financial liability only protects if the trustees have acted legally and with due care and attention.

Trustees are volunteers and can only in very rare circumstances be paid for any of the work that they do for the charity - and if this is possible it must be detailed in the governing document. It is usual for trustees to be able to claim reasonable out-of-pocket expenses like travel and car parking fees. It is also a good idea for a charity to have an estimated budget figure for the cost of trustee meetings (venue hire, refreshments and travel expenses) - to invest in its governance.

If you believe that working as a trustee for a charity can make a real difference to people's lives then it can be a wonderful experience in particular if your fellow trustees are like-minded and hardworking. But it is not a position to be taken on lightly or without finding out exactly what it may entail.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What is a charity?

A charity is any organisation set up for the purposes of promoting the public good. This may be (and almost always is) the good of a sub-section of the public but you can't set up a charity to benefit your family. In 2006 the idea of public benefit was tightened up and you can see here what the Charity Commission says about it.

An organisation has a form and a status. The form for most charities is either an unincorporated association or a limited company. There are also trusts, industrial and provident societies, charitable incorporated organisations and limited liability partnerships. See Get Legal for more information about these.

As an unincorporated association the organisation is not a legal entity and cannot own anything or employ anyone - all this is done by the trustees. As a company the organisation is itself a legal entity - so for example the company can be awarded a contract.

The status of an organisation is about whether or not it is a registered charity. An organisation does not have to be registered to be a charity - but it helps in particular for organisations which use public money, either individual donations or grants. Having charitable status infers a degree of protection for trustees if they abide by charity law and provides a framework for operating the charity. It also imposes responsibilities on trustees and required reporting to the Charity Commission.

Therefore, any organisation which is deemed a charity will have a legal form and may or may not have a registered status.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What is governance?

Governance – 'the systems and processes concerned with ensuring the overall direction, effectiveness, supervision and accountability of an organisation from Cornforth via ChangeUp (2004)

Governance is not so much about doing as thinking and shaping, directing and delegating, monitoring and reflecting, setting targets and supporting the achievement of targets and taking responsibility for all that happens within an organisation. Authority may be delegated but responsibility cannot - not ultimate responsibility. In an organisation with several staff and volunteers there should be little actual doing by the board. Whatever else it is, it is about leadership - knowing where the organisation is going and then putting processes in place to get it there.

UK - the national and local scenes

I like to read the minutes of the GA's (General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches') Executive Committee meetings to see what's happening and sometimes to see what is not happening. Those interested in reading these can sign up to receive the e-news sent out by the GA - see their website

I may use illustrations from national or local activity to highlight what I think is good and not-so-good approaches to charity governance.

And so the blog begins

This blog is born out of a desire to make a positive contribuion to UK Unitarians' continued discussions (or not) about how good governance works and to offer some hints and wrinkles about how to make it work for Unitarian communities wherever they are, however big or small.

Much of what I write will apply to Scotland and Northern Ireland - but they have their own charity regulators and their own charity law. The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) and the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland. The Charity Commission covers England and Wales.