Despite the strategic focus of charity trustees, board members often find themselves working hard to deliver the very strategies they have created. For many trustees, juggling these competing responsibilities is something they take for granted.
As non-executives, trustees’ role is to formulate strategy and maintain oversight of the charity’s direction, vision, mission and goals. Typically, this strategy is translated into an actionable plan by the CEO and this is delivered by staff and volunteers. For well resourced charities that can afford a strong operational team, and the divide between non-exec and executive responsibilities tends to be more clearly drawn. According to the recently released Taken on Trust report, however, this is probably not the case for 80% of charities which have a turnover of less than £100K. For these smaller organisations it’s fair to assume that there is little to no operational team for trustees to rely on. Given these numbers, it seems plausible that the vast majority of trustees work, at least to some extent, between the realms of operational and strategic and here’s where official guidance on trusteeship begins to fall short.
As a governance and recruitment professional, I’m frequently asked to find trustees who are expected to act in both a strategic and an operational capacity. Herein lies the tension between theory and practice. The charity commission outlines the role of a trustee in almost purely strategic terms whilst the Governance Code doesn’t provide much more stating that trustees must be “clear about the capacity in which they are acting at any given time and understand what they are and are not authorised to do and to whom they report.” The problem is that many trustees are inducted into a board culture that expects them to both formulate their organisation’s strategy and then realise it with hard graft.
So, what’s the problem with this kind of trusteeship? Well, potentially nothing so long as the trustees are able to recognise compartmentalise these two spheres of responsibility. Issues arise, however, when the operational and the strategic blur and trustees struggle to differentiate their responsibilities due to their engagement in the day-to-day affairs of the organisation.