I work with the Cranfield Trust offering free support for charity leaders. In a recent discussion about the cost-of-living crisis with the chair of a charity I work with, they remarked wryly that, "The cost-of-living crisis isn't like another wave of Covid - this is like a different disease, and it feels like we’re back at square one"! I agreed, and it got me thinking about what trustees in particular can do, to help their charities and beneficiaries move forwards in the challenging times ahead.
The next 12-18 months is going to require new thinking and a re-energised, or at least, focused and invigorated, trustee base across the sector. The future looks 'foggy' and most trustees (and probably CEO's) have never had to operate during a time of such high inflation with its known and often unknown consequential effects. It’s thirty years since we’ve been in this situation and coming hard on the back of Covid, this is going to be uncharted territory for many trustees. But while there is gloom and doom, there are also some positive and important steps trustees and boards can take now to better weather their journey into this uncharted territory.
Firstly, trustees will need to set a direction for their charities. By this I don’t mean a 'grand strategy' but rather, learn or consolidate the skills of providing leadership and direction to their charity. Plotting and navigating a course for their charity may be a better way of thinking of this. A defining feature of the charities that I work with who made it through Covid, (and I suspect will make it through the cost-of-living crisis), was leadership. They worked collectively as a board of trustees to get to grips with the issues and worked them through with vigour to produce decisions that made a positive difference. They pooled their intellectual horsepower, focused on the real issues they faced and worked remarkably hard as a team with its individual parts to apply 'survival skills' that worked. I worry that a lot of boards are passive, or at the very least, have many passive trustees on their boards. With this looming crisis, we need all hands on the wheel.
Secondly, trustees on these successful charities were prepared to think 'outside the box'. They looked beyond their current boundaries, particularly around collaboration. Now, collaboration is a subject that hasn't been explored enough in the sector, but now I can say with confidence its time has finally come! Trustees will need to really push the envelope in terms of looking for partners to help them deliver more or better services, or reduce costs. Why should there be ten similar charities in close proximity bearing similar overheads when they could pool resources and probably deliver a bigger footprint for the same costs? Looking for collaborators who will complement services will be a key role of trustees, and they will really need to step up a gear to source opportunities, forecasting demand and looking for how best to meet it - solo or with partners.
Thirdly, trustees will need to learn 'agility'. Now, I don't mean jumping through hoops or doing backflips. Instead it’s about remaining strongly engaged on their boards, gauging what is really unfolding before them, and making sure their charity's response is appropriate. I worry that at the end of this crisis that we will see many charities fail when they could not, or would not, change tack despite seeing the rocks ahead.
Finally, few, if any, of us are 'born trustees'. The skills of 'practical governance' are learned and not ingrained. Successful trustees - regardless of where they are on their journey - will either have mastered these or be seeking to master them. So, the skills of how to be engaged on a board, how to meet challenge, how to 'follow the pounds' and how to leave a legacy that made a difference, will all be the hallmarks of the trustees that help us get through this crisis. For trustees that choose not to learn how to be a better, more effective, trustee, I fear that like the sailors in those old films, their charities will fall off the edge of 'the flat earth'! For those that do, whilst the waters ahead will be choppy, they will make the journey and might just find something better over the horizon!
To find out more about what excellence looks like for a trustee and the key skills you need to have, join Stephen Cahill of the Cranfield Trust at our Lifecycle of a Charity – the trustee journey webinar on Wednesday 9 November.