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.