Thursday, September 22, 2011

Conflicts of interest and loyalty

In small organisations it is easy to slip into an informal way of doing things when people who are keen on following procedures are seen as killjoys - ruining the 'party'.  I am all for informality but I am also all for ensuring one's own integrity and that of our organisations.  There may be situations when we have a conflict of interest - but more often than not our trustees do not get any benefit from their involvement.  Although some may get an honorarium and some may have paid roles within the community such as the organist, paid warden or gardener.  However I think that these are fairly straightforward and people would understand the issue.  

It is with conflicts of loyalities that we need to be on our guard.  In small communities there are people who are married, who are related in other ways, who are close friends and perhaps who help us out, by giving us a lift, giving us flowers or a listening ear.  How do we ensure that we make decisions based on what we think is good for everyone rather than just those people we are closest to or to whom we think we owe a debt?  There are not many times when we have contentious decisions to make but these are the times when we show the level of maturity that our organisations are at.

In some way we need to take a level of emotion out of decision-making.  Forget who our friends and family are, forget that we usually vote the same way as person X and take a dispassionate view of the situation.  We cannot be wholly objective but we do need to try.  As trustees (committee members) we are not deciding what is good for us but deciding what is good for everybody.

I have written recently about the volunteering that I'm doing at a local community centre  and the discussions over governance structures.  The chair has told me on several occasions not to upset one particular person who has done a lot of work on this.  I have asked him how I give people my honest opinion that their proposal just will not work, as I have tried many approaches.  If we are talking models of governance it is clear - good practice is clear - and how similar charities work is clear.  This is not personal but professional.  In some situations I have been in, not this one, I have been with people who have chosen to invest emotional capital in a situation - making it very definitely personal rather than professional: a test of personal loyalty.

If we are talking about people's feelings being heavily invested in being right or being in control then what can anyone do?  Our loyalty always has to be to good working practices - we don't need to be unpleasant about it but we do need to be clear.  We are not making a decision because of a loyalty to one person's feelings but to the organisation.  Some people choose the decision which causes least upset - this is not what the law says trustees should do.

So in preparing ourselves for objective decision-making our communities need to understand how good decisions are made and that the focus of any decision is the health of the organisation, in our case our faith community, and not the feelings of any one individual.  We need to ensure that the decision-making process is understood and agreed with everyone beforehand.  In psychological terms we are making rational, adult decisions. After a decision is made, if there are people feeling upset, then we need to be compassionate whilst remaining 100% committed to the decision.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Back to policies

I wrote briefly about writing policies in February of this year.  Here I am again writing about the importance of writing your own - or at least being heavily involved in what gets written.

I have just written a conflict of interest policy and procedures for a voluntary organisation that I am working with.  There's nothing like actually writing a policy yourself.  Many people search the Internet and copy someone else's.  This has two major drawbacks - (1) you are assuming that it's a well-written document; (2) you are assuming that for each organisation the issues are the same.

In my experience of writing and researching policies and procedures there's a lot of copying and so a lot of very badly written documents.  People more often than not confuse policies with procedures - there are overlaps but there are also some clear dividing lines.  In fact most people's policies are procedures and there's no policy document at all or there's just one paragraph.  Policy documents are vital because they tell you what to take into account if you are dealing with something that hasn't been thought of and has no procedure.

Essentially policies are about why and the big issue whats - why has the policy been written, what principles and values of the organisation does this reflect, what are the issues that need addressing and what do we need to keep in mind when making decisions or carrying out actions.  Procedures are about how - how is the policy to be implemented - and this then brings in when, where, who and the specific whats.  Who does what (specific thing), when and where.  

It is certainly worth looking at other people's polices and procedures and seeing what they have covered.  It is also useful to critique these - to help you to understand what a good policy and procedure may look like.  Because I do this for a living I have a fairly standard format which separates the policy from the procedures.  Having a standard format is helpful but you mustn't be bound by it - writing a policy on trustee behaviour may look quite different from one on computer-use health and safety.  

You need to think - 'Who will use these, how will they use them and what will make it easier for them to use?'.  You may want some appendices and just keep the basics in the main documents.  Appendices may contain information about the law on certain issues in more depth than in the main document, for example equality issues.  Or they may contain some guidelines from a good practice document.

You need to think of your specific situation, your organisation's values and the way that you actually do things.  As long as what you currently do is safe, legal and in line with your principles you would probably be best writing up what you actually do as your procedures.  When I write procedures I try to reflect what people have told me about what they do and then ask them to check carefully what I've written.  An external consultant should not be telling an organisation how they do business - we can inform and advise - but ultimately it is the trustees of the organisation who need to assert how they will do things and how they will ensure that those things are actually done.

Like anything it becomes easier with practice but if you always copy someone else's you won't get much practice.  It is important that organisations have some policies and procedures but they need to be good quality, fit for purpose and owned by everyone within the organisation.  It is better to have a few good quality policies and procedures than a full set of someone else's that no-one has read let alone implemented.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Simply does it

I am volunteering with a local Community Centre which has been open for three months - I am on the events team.  Because I chair this I get to sit on other groups and get the opportunity to input into more general issues. At the moment the trustees are developing the structure and processes for governance.  It is important to remember what stage organisations are at - starting a charity is very different to being with a well-established charity which has all its structures and processes in place.  

Much of the experience that people are bringing to the Board table comes from their experience with other charities which weren't new. Also some of the trustees were holding trustees for the previous village hall so had no management responsibilities.  The organisation is now a company so no need for holding trustees as the company owns the land and the buildings.  Therefore these trustee need to be very clear about what is expected of them from the Charity Commission and from good practice guidance.

The building cost over £1.5m to build and is fantastic. It has a lovely big hall with several smaller rooms.  The Police have their post there and the County Council runs a Children's Centre.  There is a cafe and a bar.  It is built to a very high spec. This all gives the idea of a big place - it is an extensive building on a large piece of land and there is loads of activity.  The aspiration and the reality are that this is a big thing.  But the organisation is small.  There are less than five whole time equivalent staff and although there are quite a few volunteers - many of us get recycled into different roles.

Any governance structure has to reflect the particular stage that an organisation is at and its size - not the size of the building it inhabits but the size of the organisation - what is the financial turn-over and how many people are involved.  For such an organisation as the Community Centre any structure needs to be simple.  The Board needs to be very active in leading the developments and understanding what their role is.  This group of people (the trustees) are used to talking about building a community centre not running it.

I have been quite tenacious in attempting to get them to think small and simple - to ensure that the Board has a handle on what is happening and that those decisions which are not delegated to sub-groups or staff are actually made by the Board and not some other group.  There only needs to be two tiers of governance - the Board and then sub-groups and task and finish groups and the staff team implementing board decisions.  Any more and confusion arises.

Once this structure has been agreed the bigger portion of the work begins on getting the processes right.  This is much easier with a simpler structure.  A more complicated structure may emerge but it will emerge in response to need and can be managed.  I appreciate that many of the trustees would like to relax a bit now that the building is open but this phase is key.  Board meetings should be monthly and tightly managed.  

The best approach is to encourage action plans to be written by each group meeting under the Board and to ask for exception reporting.  The Board therefore knows what should be happening and only gets alerted to things not getting done (that should have been done) or new things being done (that weren't planned for).

Every time I make a proposal which differs from what is being suggested I write a full paper explaining why.  It is often these active exchanges which are more educational than any training that could be offered.  It's learning on the job which works really well for most of us.