14/07/2014 10:59 BST | Updated 13/09/2014 06:59 BST

Charity Trustees Should Focus on Mission Not Their Comfort

Being a charity trustee in the current political and economic environment does not always feel comfortable. There are many reasons for this.

Large or small, local or national - charities are facing common problems of reduced income and, if they are charities concerned with social issues, often increased demand for their services.

In spite of the Social Value Act, public sector commissioning and procurement is increasingly favouring the large corporate sector providers and / or putting price before quality, let alone 'social impact'. When they are let, contracts are all too often prescriptive and reduce the sector's ability to innovate and to be responsive.

Local infrastructure bodies and their developmental capacity are being squeezed, and too many have had to close or very seriously curtail their activities and offer to the local sector. Indeed, many local authorities and their public sector partners have heavy-handedly dismantled the partnership architecture that was supposed to provide an opportunity for the sector to have a local voice with the public sector.

National and sometimes local politicians are challenging the right of charities to campaign and to speak up for their beneficiaries and communities. This is particularly the case when charities are in receipt of public money.

What bitter irony then that we are continuously being told by these same politicians and local leaders that they wish to see, promote and support a strong civil society underpinned by effective independent charities.

Consequently when sitting around a board table or in smaller charities undertaking voluntary work for the charity, many trustees could be forgiven for wondering why they are still there doing what they are doing.

There is a whole series of articles to be written about the role and the motivation of charity trustees, and this is not the place for such a dissertation. However, I do believe that it is essential that faced with their various contemporary challenges and the resultant difficult decisions, charity trustees should dig deep into their souls and focus on the charity's mission and uphold its values.

In practice this means putting the mission before the organisation and self-interest of either trustees or staff. Now this is not a call for charities to abandon their duty of care and responsibilities to be exemplar employers - far from it. It does mean, however, being prepared when necessary to take tough decisions including potentially merging the charity with another one, collaborating with the business sector, downsizing the operation, closing services and/or adopting unpopular positions on public policy issues. It means being prepared to challenge orthodoxy and vested interests, ask the question 'why', and being willing to experiment and take calculated risks. And above all, it requires trustees to understand their organisation's structures, finances, asset base and most importantly both the views of service users and beneficiaries, and the real 'impact' that the charity does (or does not) make.

Every pound spent should be accounted for in terms of its impact and contribution to the charity's mission. This enables trustees and their senior leadership teams to make rational choices, and to be properly accountable.

Anecdotally, far too often I hear about charities where the trustees and their thinking seems either fossilised by fear, lack of imagination or by a desire to maintain an unsustainable management structure, office accommodation or a service that no longer makes a positive impact. Such approaches are probably contrary to the legal duties of a charity trustee and board, and they are certainly out-with the values and behaviours that should be expected.

Trustees have to be ready to take advice and not always from within the sector or from those in the trustee's normal comfort zone. It means being ready to challenge senior staff, and to involve all staff, and wherever possible service users in the debate about future options.

Fundamentally, it requires bold and effective leadership from trustees, especially from the chairs of charity boards. And for trustees to follow through and demonstrate this leadership, both strategically and through their behaviours.

I predict that the next few years will be both very challenging and uncomfortable, and simultaneously very exciting and reinvigorating for many charity boards and their trustees.

Many of the country's oldest charities were established to fight social injustice in some of the cruellest social, economic and political conditions. The same spirit of mission and the same values that inspired and drove the founders of such charities must be seen, heard, practiced and honoured across this country's diverse and vital charity sector.