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How to be a good trustee in a period of rapid change

By the time you read this article, events in the external social and economic environment will have moved on considerably. The current pace of change means that as fast as we are thinking about how to react to a government announcement, and in the time we have implemented or even considered any actions arising, the situation has evolved again...

How to be a good trustee in a period of rapid change

Under normal circumstances, board meeting calendars are often set up a year in advance. It is also a sign of good planning and efficiency to have your board meeting papers sent out at least a week before a meeting, giving you plenty of time to read and digest the content, and come up with questions to discuss at a meeting.

Based on my experience of attending meetings across the last few weeks, in the majority of cases, the papers that were issued have now been superseded, either as a result of shifting priorities, or in the case of charity finances, the data needs to be updated to real time information to be relevant to current decision making.

To help trustees find their way in these challenging and uncertain times, consider the following tips:

1. Relax and re-schedule your formal pre-planned board meeting calendar

If your charity is organising shorter, more informal briefings for the staff teams, consider joining in with those via phone or video link. These could include a virtual coffee or lunch break.

2.  Avoid preparing lengthy board papers on short- to medium-term issues requiring a decision

Keep papers brief and to the point, with clearly required actions. Consider circulating these electronically and keep decision deadlines as short as possible. However, do avoid knee jerk reactions. Always pause for thought and delay where this may be beneficial in the longer-term. If you need additional support, please refer to the Charity Commission guidance on decision making.

3. Stay focused on risk

These are uncertain times where cash is king. This means that any financial analysis prepared in support of a proposed decision should include easily understandable sensitivity analysis for different scenarios – work with your management team to minimise their time to prepare it (and your time to understand it).

4. Hold more regular catch-ups

When it comes to meeting with key members of the board and management team such as the Chair, Treasurer, Chief Executive Officer and Finance Director, don’t wait to discuss critical issues if someone is unavailable, keep discussions timely and relevant and update the wider team afterwards.

5. Document your conversations

Wherever virtual meetings are held, ensure minutes are typed up during the meeting so that they can be circulated and approved immediately afterwards. The Association of Chairs has produced its own helpful top tips on holding board meetings.

6. Collaborate and play your part

It's your job to ensure that action plans are appended to the minutes so that everyone is clear how and when to make their contribution. If you agree to a follow up action, make sure that you carry it out, deadlines are likely to prove critical.

7. Finally, share and learn.

In unchartered waters, the key is too keep communication lines as clear and open as possible. We are not going to get everything right first time, but if we share our experiences and learn how to do things in a better way next time, this continuous cycle of improvement will result in more effective governance in the longer term.

I hope the above will enable you to support your management teams, allow you to remain effectively engaged with your organisation in real time and ensure your vital contributions contribute to the financial sustainability of all charities within the sector throughout this unprecedented time.