My Trustee Story

By Nancy Doyle, Vice Chair of VONNE and Executive Director of Virgin Money Foundation

I became a trustee 4 years ago, and am just about to stand for reappointment for a final two year term. The experience has been incredibly valuable and my decision to offer to extend my term as Vice Chair of VONNE reflects the fact that the benefit has been two way. So what has been my trustee journey.

My experience of Trustees, who they are, what they do…  started when I was a new Chief Executive, running a homelessness charity with a long history in the North East. I was a newcomer, new to running a charity and new to the North East. I had the hunger and drive of a new chief executive and the choking awareness of the responsibility I had for 1000 vulnerable people our projects were serving and the 50 or so staff who were looking to me as their new leader.

My entry to the world of being a charity leader was made more complex by the chapter of the organisations history I was arriving into. The previous Chief Exec was a very dynamic inimitable leader, who had grown the charity through its first twenty years. She was highly thought of by others in the sector and she was beloved amongst my staff team, and she had suddenly and rapidly become unwell and passed away. The Board of Trustees had stepped in to guide the organisation through this period of crisis, and their recruitment processes for the incoming Chief executive had led them to me.

I was ready for a challenge but I couldn’t have stepped out of a job in a different city, moved to the North East and started the job well without a supportive and enabling Board of Trustees. They hosted me when I came up to Newcastle to house hunt, they took me through a far reaching induction process, they gave me a learning and development budget so that I was resourced to fill the gaps in my geographical and executive knowledge and they got their balance of attentiveness and hands off at the right level as I took hold of the organisation, got to know it and began to direct its future.

My experience of having a board as a new Trustee was of

Careful recruitment – recruiting a Chief executive is a serious task, it requires time and diligence. They invested time in getting to know me and the other candidates, and through a series of steps and rounds came to their decision to appoint me.

Supportive environment – They knew that they had recruited someone who had never led a business or a charity before. The scope of their role as those ultimately responsible for the charity meant that they wouldn’t be discharging their duties well simply to recruit me and let me sink or swim. They made themselves available to me and provided a supportive environment both to learn and settle in, setting me the task of conducting a review of the organisation in  my first 100 days and listening to the outcomes giving me the right balance of freedom and involvement to enable me to get on any make necessary changes to the charity following the review with the advantage of a team of trustees who had history with the organisation, and the insight that only comes for having this history – something I was in short supply of. 

Alongside the balance of freedom and support there were 3 key roles that my Trustees played in my experience of being a charity Chief executive:

Wise Counsel

One of the things that I have heard many times form other charity leaders and that rings true for me, is that leading a charity you can rarely afford the expertise that many larger businesses take for granted. It was always with curled toes that I would sign off the invoices of professionals that my charity needed – lawyers, chartered surveyors etc – but could hardly afford.  When it was necessary we would bring them in, but it diverted money away from the projects we operated. £1k spent on a chartered surveyor was money that couldn’t be spent on providing a literacy workshop or a parenting workshop to the young people we supported.  Boards are by and large volunteers, and they give their time and skills to the charity they support for free. I had on my board a managing director of a group of Chartered Accountants, who provided advice to us on all things finance, we had a legal secretary who dealt with all the health and safety claims against a local authority in his day job, who was another of our trustees. He headed up our health and safety Committee and ensured that we had all the right controls and insurances in place to ensure that I didn’t end up in court with a corporate manslaughter charge; we had the Chair of the Risk and Audit Committee for a major national housing association who was another trustee who introduced a risk and audit committee to our charity and helped develop a comprehensive approach to internal audit for the charity. We had a doctor who had significant experience of safeguarding practice in the NHS who joined our board as Vice Chair and oversaw a Safeguarding Committee for the Board.

Trustees were the wise counsel that I needed to lead my organisation well and to ensure comprehensive diligence. At Board Meetings they would sit and grapple an issue we have and bring the wisdom and the skills needed to lead the charity well.  

Critical friend

They were also a critical friend.

Leading a charity can be a lonely business. Stressful situations happen and your role is to lead calmly. You don’t always feel it! My trustees were at the end of the phone to be a sounding board, they took me to lunch once a quarter for an informal debrief and they were able to say ‘you should think about this’ or ‘you should think twice before starting to do that’, something few people on your staff feel able to do.

Appraising and accountability

Along similar lines, the Board provided me with appraisals and with very important accountability structures. Ultimately it is trustees who hire and fire the executive and who have the important role of holding them to account. This wasn’t something I thought that much about until a season came along when I didn’t really have it. Our Chairman went on sick leave and didn’t come back for a year, the trustees struggled to  act quickly enough to mandate the Vice Chair to perform the duties of the Chairman, and for a season I started to develop a feeling that I didn’t have the accountability that I needed. 

Charities have suffered a significant fall in public confidence. With high profile stories about charities that have not been prudent stewards of charitable funds planting seeds of concern in the public’s mind. It is the role of boards to appraise and hold accountable their executive team, to ensure that they understand the health of the charity and ensure that the charity is remaining focused upon the outworking of their charitable objects and acting with integrity and trust.

For the majority of my time as a Chief Executive I had this accountability and systems of appraisal, and developed a real appreciation for the safety net and fidelity this provides.

 

It was my own experience of the real value of trustees and the pivotal role they play that led me to give time to being a trustee for VONNE.

I have learnt a lot along the way…

I have become very aware that being a trustee is a two way street.

It takes time. Trusteeship is not the kind of thing you can sign up for because it looks good on your CV without being committed to the cause and people involved.  Board meetings where people don’t turn up are frustrating and ineffective.  You need the discussion of the Board in the room, you need people to have read papers in advance.  It is a role that requires commitment

I have discovered that you learn more than you contribute.

Leading a charity I was very aware of the skills that the Board brought, and how their skills set benefited the organisation. As a Board member I am aware of how much I learn from the papers I read and the conversations I am privy to.  As a trustee you get to see the financial processes and results, the strategy and the journey that goes into creating the strategy, the personnel processes, the formation of policy and procedure, the negotiations regarding terms and conditions.  More broadly you get to see how another Board makes their decisions, what level of debate there is, how differences of opinions are managed and negotiated,  the relationship dynamic between Chair and Chief Executive and how the Board collectively appraises their own performance, manages conflicts of interest and identifies and articulates the gaps in their breadth and their knowledge, recruiting to the gaps they see.

I have learnt about the real need for diversity

Both as a Chief Executive but more acutely as a Board member I have developed a deeper understanding of the need for diversity on Boards. When I inherited my board at Oasis Aquila it was entirely male, all between the ages of 40 and 60 and white. This unfortunately is not unusual.

I also have learnt that when you are the lone woman around the table, or when you are the youngest or when you feel yourself to lack the experience of others around the table, it is easy to turn up but be silent. This is to the detriment of the Board and to the organisation.

Charities typically work with people who are not relatively powerful white middle aged men, they need a variety of voice, identity and life experience at every level of their decision making and strategy forming.  Young people, women, people with lived experience and a breadth of people of different ethnicities, class, professional role, sexualities, power status, and the right blend of slow thinkers and quick thinkers, introverts and extroverts are needed around the board table.

 

So what has being a trustee entailed?

I applied to be a trustee at VONNE and was voted in by the membership at an AGM.

For the first year I attended Board meetings, learnt about VONNE from a governance perspective, got to know the staff team and the other Board Members.

I then joined the Finance Sub Group. I enjoy finance, I was used to seeing my own charities accounts and I was interested to see ion more depth how finances were governed at VONNE.  I was the one non-finance professional on the sub group, so I made it my role to ask what may seem the obvious questions, to drill down into the figures to ensure that they could be explained and understandable to a non-finance mind.

I was then asked to consider becoming Vice Chair which I was happy to do. There was a strong chair so if I am honest I assumed it would be more of a formality than anything. However in the first few months of being Vice Chair the AGM took place and the Treasurer was busy on a golfing holiday and so unable to attend to present the accounts… It fell to me!!

About a year after becoming Vice Chair the wonderful Chief Executive announced that she was moving on to pastures new and so the Board convened to plan the recruitment processes. I agreed to be on a working group to recruit the new Chief Executive and the next day got a call from the Chair announcing her intention to apply for the role. This meant she had to step down with immediate effect. As Vice Chair it was my role to assume the Chairship.

This was daunting and hard work.

But we did it, we recruited a great chief executive wo just happened to be the former Chair. I could hold my head up and say that I knew that I knew that it was a robust process and fairly managed.  I felt like in some ways had gone full circle in my Trustee experience, from being the Chief Executive appointed to my own charity, to being the Chair Person recruiting a Chief Executive.

My intention was never to be Chair of VONNE, so once the new Chief Executive was in post I announced my intention to stand down as Chair and we recruited a chairman with a strong skill set suited to VONNE’s work. I reverted to the role of Vice Chair.

Trustee role’s generally hold a maximum terms and I am going into the final period of Trusteeship at VONNE. When I finish at VONNE I will certainly seek a new Trustee role. It has been a significant development opportunity for me. I think most people think about Trusteeships as an opportunity to give back, and it certainly is that, but it is a kinaesthetic process, you learn by doing it and the skills and competencies you develop as a result, in my opinion rival any development training I could have been offered.