Starting from the question I have been asked recently, namely, “ As a trustee where should I be focusing my attention and what should I be doing to help my charity”? , I am going to offer you a practical and simple framework which may help focus your thoughts and actions in the months to come. Unless the current pandemic is going to be utterly apocalyptic, then, it will end sometime, and life will go on. In fact, demand for your services may well increase so it is vital that your skills and expertise as a Trustee are used appropriately at this time.
So, onto the 6 P’s framework I am offering you (Purpose, Perspective, Pounds, People, Practicality and Positivity) and, in paragraphs below, I will step you though each of these P’s.
Purpose – Your basic reason for being as a Trustee is to act in the best interests of your charity and, to apply your efforts in furtherance of the aims of that charity. In times of crisis, it will serve you, and your charity well to remind yourself of the core purposes of your charity – and make sure attention is focused on them and NOTHING ELSE. It is all to easy to get side-tracked by a co-trustees ‘hobby horse’ or, less politely, what was described to me last week as an ‘Arthur Daley’ scheme! Exploring ways to improve the capacity of the services you deliver is vital at any time BUT, steps into the unknown are usually best avoided at times of crisis. Advice point No1 – Keep steering the conversations and actions back to your charities core purpose and use this core purpose as a yardstick to judge actions against.
Perspective –Your perspective is as a Trustee and, especially at times of crisis you are there to ask the tough questions and the right questions. Risk (financial and reputational) is considerably higher at times of crisis yet, there is considerable evidence of board of trustees making sometimes fatal decisions to their charities simply because no trustees spoke up and asked a tough question. Instead they allowed a fellow trustee to gloss over some point or, just plain ‘sat on their hands’ because they thought it stupid or too difficult to ask a question. Advice point No2 – Ask a tough question if you think of it and simply stand your ground until it is answered to your satisfaction. Don’t allow ANY glossing over or dismissing of your question and remember, you have legal responsibilities as a trustee and, failure to ask the tough question can back to haunt you.
Pounds – Financial matters are usually the ones that most Trustees dislike dealing with – at least in my experience. Yet, the pounds are what make or break most charities and as a trustee you have a solemn obligation that these are spent wisely. In practical terms, you need to know where money is coming from and where it is going and if the two are unfavourable, you may have some tough decisions to make about the future of the charity BUT before it appears ‘gloom and doom’ there is often many decisions that you could make – for example, deferring payments, grants, loans, severely cutting expenditure and going into suspended animation if you like! Advice point No 3 – Follow the pounds and if you still don’t understand 100%, go back for explanation until you do. Use your skills and expertise as a Trustee to draw out different scenarios as to where the pounds can come from and where they can go.
People – My observation is that in a crisis you tend to get three types of people: Those that do things; those that direct things; and those that get in everyone else’s road! This is a little tongue in cheek but, based on my extensive experience of crisis management, a true one. As a trustee, you may be willing and able to weigh in and do things and this is laudable. However, in a crisis, your best course of action may be to stick to what you are supposed to be doing – namely providing governance to your charity and, if you really feel like rolling your sleeves up, then defer to operational staff whose job it is to ‘do the doing’. Advice point No 4 – DON’T GET IN THE WAY! If you see a gap in the ‘doing’ then point it out but, don’t become a ‘one-person crusade’.
Practicality – Remember your perspective as a trustee and aim to bring a sense of practicality to discussion and decision making. In crises, some people are apt to look for ‘grand unifying theories’ and ‘the elegant solution to everything’. They seldom find it. Instead as a trustee you encourage decision making that seeks to get practical and immediate solutions to problems that don’t paint you into a corner ( be mindful of this one – a quick fix solution can often take ten times the effort to undo!) Advice point No5 – Keep it practical and focused on delivery and steer people towards this mindset.
Positivity – I am not going to pull punches on this one. It is going to difficult for many in the charity sector to remain positive in the months to come yet, unless you as a trustee brings a sense of positivity to tackling a crisis, then it isn’t long before other people inside and outside the charity pick up on it. Nobody likes bad news at the best of times. Even in the darkest moments, remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing and the social benefit it is delivering – even if it may be paused for a while. Advice point No6 – Your staff and donors are likely to have enough bad news on their plates already and don’t need to hear it from you! As a trustee be a positive force and couch your words and messages accordingly.
I hope that the framework above helps you a little in the current crisis and once all this has settled down, I look forward to running some sessions for the trust on crisis management where I can help you build resilience and ways of dealing with crises.
Stephen Cahill Bio
Stephen Cahill is a semi-retired executive with extensive senior experience across the public, private and charity sectors. He specialises in helping organisations to achieve rapid results by focusing on,"the things that really matter". He has been active with The Cranfield Trust for nearly a decade.