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Charities Matter And Their Chairs Are Important - Never Make The Wrong Appointment Or Hold On To The Wrong Person

Charities play a vital role across society and the economy.

They must be well led by their chairs as well as their chief executives.

How a charity is chaired matters - so charities must get these appointments right and be clear that this is a 'strategic' leadership role.

Chairing a charity, or indeed any voluntary and community organisation, is an important and responsible role. Sadly, however, and all too often, this is not recognised by trustees who need to recruit and appoint a new chair, trustee boards all too easily fail to properly step back, review the context and landscape, and agree what they are seeking to appoint to. And consequently, far too often, the wrong people are appointed, with the wrong approaches, and for the wrong reasons.

For the charity concerned, this can be fatal.

In these comments, I am principally directing myself to those charities, which are large enough to employ staff and, in particular, chief executives or directors. The situation is different in small organisations in which the board of trustees are often also the volunteers and who deliver the charity's activities - although even then, it still matters that the right people are appointed to do the right job.

I believe that the chair of a charity has ten key responsibilities:

  • providing strategic leadership to the Board and the wider charity
  • making sure that their organisation has a clear vision, objectives and strategy, with the Chief Executive developing plans to implement this strategy; and to ensure that the board monitors and reviews both the strategy and the impact of the plans being implemented in a timely and effective way, to ensure the fulfilment of the mission and organisational sustainability
  • ensuring that the board always puts the mission and the interests of service users before self-interest, ego, personal comfort, key staff's interests or the charity as an institution
  • together with board colleagues, being the custodian of the charity's mission, values and behaviours
  • ensuring exemplar governance through an effective board - including a review of existing governance structures and arrangements; and working with the CEO and senior team, ensuring strong succession planning, the right organisational capacity and structures, real accountability and efficient stewardship of resources, with a shared view on risk appetite
  • supporting, appraising, 'managing', mentoring and providing "critical friend" challenge to the CEO, whilst not engaging in operational management
  • ensuring that all board members are able to maximise their contribution; be available to listen to them; and appraise all board members on an annual basis as well as be appraised annually themselves
  • undertaking a regular programme of meetings and conversations with clients, services users, staff, partners, funders and other stakeholders
  • acting as an ambassador for the organisation externally
  • harnessing their networks to support and promote the organisation

A chair's external roles are very important. However, boards should not appoint chairs principally because they are thought to be well connected. An undue and inappropriate focus on leading fund raising, contract bidding or influencing activity risks missing the fundamental and wider strategic leadership role of the chair. If a charity wants to appoint a 'personality' or specialist who can access potential donors, then they should consider creating a chair of a fund raising sub-committee, or a fundraising ambassador - the latter being a quite different role to that of chair of a charity, which requires entirely different competencies.

The most critical relationship for the success of any charity (and indeed for most bodies in all sectors) is the relationship between the chief executive and the chair. This has to be professional. 'Ego' has to be put to one side. The chemistry between the two has to be right. The chair has to be challenging whilst being supportive. She/he should always be well informed and ideally have a visibility and allowed access across the organisation, which enables her or him to 'know what is going on' and to be accessible to staff, but without being involved in operations and/or getting 'under the feet' of the chief executive and senior staff.

I believe that there are several conditions that should apply to any chairing of a charity. These will be vary from charity to charity but should at the very least include:

  • an empathy with the charitable aims, and a commitment to the charity's mission and values
  • a commitment to give the time that the role requires
  • the avoidance of any conflict of interest
  • an understanding of and commitment to exemplar governance
  • a 'role description'
  • an annual appraisal, which ideally should be a '360/720 degree' process
  • a willingness to undertake training and to keep up to date to with the organisation and the environment in which it operates
  • a time limit on appointment
  • putting in place development and succession planning for the chief executive role, the board and your own position

I know from personal experience that being a chair can be demanding and challenging, at times very time consuming and above all, very rewarding. From an individual's perspective, what matters is selecting the right appointments to pursue, and only taking on a chair role when you know it is right for you, and just as importantly, that you are right for the charity. And crucially, having taken on such a role, come the day that you can't give or deliver what is required, you have to be ready to step aside, without being pushed.

The next few years will be very challenging for many charities. Those with effective chairs and effective chief executives, and perhaps most significantly, effective chair- CEO partnerships are the one's that will have the best chance of surviving and thriving.

Chairs must step up to the mark (or step down) for the sake of their charities and their beneficiaries. And boards must make the right chair appointments.

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