Making charity boards more strategic

Recently we have been approached by a couple of charities asking us to go onto their boards. While it is flattering, and something we think seriously about, our workload is high and being a board director comes with many obligations.

What we have suggested to the charities is to put in place a couple of sub-committees which, if used well, will help their boards significantly and enable them to seek and receive strong, responsible advice from people, such as John Myers and Penny Underwood, without overburdening them.

Here is some of our reasoning.

1. Detail and debate

The role of a board is to govern not manage. Governing often means getting into the detail but most board meetings have large and tight agendas which do not leave enough time to either debate or get into the details.

Putting in sub-committees – which includes board members with appropriate skills – provides staff and board members the chance to work together. For a board members, being on a sub-committee allows the opportunity to learn more about the charity and become more involved strategically.

2. Specialist advice

Sub-committees also give organisations that chance of bringing in people with expertise but who do not want, for whatever reason, to become a board member. For executive staff, it is also the chance to meet and work with potential board members. More critically, sub-committees run well can and should be used as advisory groups to test new ideas, proposals or to reflect on current learnings.

3. Sub-committees don’t have to last for ever

Risk and finance committees are essential but if, for example, a committee has been formed to review technology needs or plan for a major anniversary, it should be closed with the review or event is over.   

4. Terms of reference

All committees should have terms of reference that have been signed off by the board. This is crucial for good governance. It certainly helps to avoid the potential of a sub-committee taking over board responsibilities.  Keep the terms simple and short.

5. Bring new staff into the thinking

Staff development is often viewed in isolation of boards. However, being part of a sub-committee allows junior staff the opportunity to learn about governance, learn what board and committee members need to make good decisions, and helps to break down barriers between senior, middle and junior levels.