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.

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