Tuesday, April 17, 2012


A bit of a conversation on someone else's blog brought the idea of scrutiny to the fore. Everything that we do in terms of governance needs some degree of scrutiny but what exactly does this mean. It means that no one person should be making significant decisions e.g. taking on staff, signing a contract or spending money, without others having a look at the decision and satisfying themselves that the decision is sound. Some charities have very clear guidelines about what trustees, staff and volunteers can and cannot do without authorisation from a higher power: many don't.

But what if the board has made a decision, what scrutiny does this need? In the first instance the board themselves need to be confident that they have scrutinised the decision that they have made. If you are going to commit resources (time and money) to something you need to be confident that someone somewhere has done the thinking. Of course this can be difficult with a new project.

I volunteered to write a business plan for a charity shop within a local Community Centre. The person with the responsibility for doing this was overwhelmed with other work. I find business plans fairly easy so said that I would have a go. For a new venture it is quite difficult, despite there being quite a bit of information about how to start a charity shop. After mulling it over for several weeks I decided that a three phase business plan would work best.

The first phase was about whether it appeared feasible. So that we didn't have to do loads of work without a sense of whether we had the basics in place, I worked on identifying what those things were. So was there enough space; did we have enough volunteers; did we have volunteers with the right experience; how would the money be handled; how would we get the goods to sell; and what would the set up costs be. I then raised some issues under each item to engage the board (I am not on the board) in debate. With this the trustees could see that it was on the surface feasible and would add some value to the Centre as well as raising money. The next phase is to look in detail at what needs doing, who will do those things, who will manage the process and how we will plan the implementation. I have stalled at the moment because I have been away and am busy for the next couple of weeks. But when phase two is finally complete we hope to have a good picture of what it is that we will have to do to set the shop up and what resources we will need. The trustees may still decide that it is too difficult or just too costly - but that is their prerogative. If they agree that it is a goer then the implementation plan is the third stage. 

This sort of process is what I would call adequate scrutiny from the Board of Trustees. Without these stages they would be agreeing to commit the charity's resources to something which was merely an idea in the minds of a few of us. And those people are the ones wedded to the idea so would be happy not to look for evidence that it might not work - but we have to and the Board of Trustees has to. Within stage two there will be an options appraisal - different opening hours; different staffing structures; and the types of goods on sale.  There will also be a risk analysis - what if we can't get the volunteers; what if no-one will or can do the management of the project; what if we can't get things to sell; what if we get too much stuff to sell etc.

For Boards of Trustees planning to invest money in something, each trustee needs to be convinced that the investment will bring some benefit and preferably a benefit at least as big as doing something else with the investment. This needs evidence or at least a well-argued case. Nothing beats a written project plan - there's then no arguing about who said what or what each person heard about particular issues. If we were investing our own money in something we would need quite a bit of convincing that whatever we invested our money in would bring us the results expected and hoped for. When we are dealing with charity resources we need to be as vigilant in spending money as we would for ourselves and then some.

Monday, April 2, 2012

How we make decisions

I have just had an email exchange with someone claiming that by not formally voting in a chair and a secretary at a new group meeting (although as there was only one candidate for each role so we nodded it through) was unconstitutional. I pointed out that as we didn't have a constitution (we're an ad hoc working group made up of people from two organisations) that whatever we did could not be termed unconstitutional.

We all know people who are wedded to their rule books, who want to see the i's dotted and the t's crossed. and we should be grateful for them. They highlight an important aspect of working within organisations. What people like my colleague do is remind us that we need to at least have some semblance of structure when we are working together within any organisation. In this instance I suggested that she write a terms of reference which outlined how we made decisions. To date she has not picked up on this.

We cannot assume that all decisions are going to be made the same way in every organisation that we are a member of. Voting in an open meeting may not be appropriate nor may the assumption  that the majority will carry it. Sometimes voting can be divisive. Sometimes people do not want to be seen to cast their vote. Sometimes things are so important that a simple majority just will not do. Most of us only think about how we make decisions when we are faced with one that is contentious.

We had this situation locally a few years back when another religious group wanted to hire our building. Their views in many ways were contrary to ours and some felt that it was inappropriate. Others felt that as long as they were not preaching hate or violence that we should reach out and offer our building. It got very testy and in the end we had a secret ballot but not until we had debated the issue very fully. In the end we did rent our building, they came a couple of times and then their own internal strifes overtook them and they disappeared. What it left us with was a feeling that we needed to know how decisions were made - not just the end bit - but the process leading up to that.

We have carried this forward with our discussions about our building. We could have taken a straight vote a year or two back. Instead we decided that we needed to debate the issue until the majority of people could see the vision of the reconfiguration of the space and the outcome that it would make the building more accessible.

Going back to my procedure-loving colleague, I think that it is worth trying to marry some people's desire for structure and accountability with others' priorities of getting the job done. As with all organisational issues it is a matter of balance and accommodating diverse approaches to make a meaningful and respectful whole.