Be honest - is your Board truly effective?

David Dunsire, Consultant at ACOSVO Strategic Partner Shepherd and Wedderburn, gives his guide to having a truly effective Board...


Over a long (too long some might say!) legal career, one of the fascinations for me, particularly in the third sector, has been to observe the dynamics of boards at work and to consider how relationships impact on their effectiveness.  So what is an ‘effective board’?

I would suggest that an effective board is one which:

  • Has a close understanding of the strategy and mission of the organisation
  • Has strong leadership (both from the Chair and the CEO)
  • Is robust (and quick) in its decision making (can it really only operate in quarterly or 6 monthly meetings?)
  • Has a positive and engaged relationship with the executive team
  • Has the appropriate skills and experience
  • Is clear on board responsibilities and its delegated functions
  • Is committed and available
  • Has strong personal relationships (i.e. among the board members – do the trustees meet outside of board meetings? Do they really know each other?)
  • Has good communication
  • Operates as ‘ambassadors’ of the organisation.

‘Pie in the sky’ or realistic? In truth, most boards I have come across are a mix of some, but not all, of these attributes, but that’s not to say they shouldn’t be the goals we work towards. Some boards have come pretty close.

The demise of the Kids Company and other recent negative media attacks on the sector, such as on excessive CEO remuneration, have brought into question how effective the boards of these affected charities must have been. All trustees are ultimately responsible, yet how many feel engaged in all aspects of the business?

When it comes to Board dynamics, leadership by the Chair and the CEO is crucial. They must work in tandem towards the same goal, and their relationship is fundamental to the success of the organisation and the effectiveness of its board.

As a lawyer attending various board meetings, I have been in a unique position to observe at close hand how the Chair/CEO relationship works in practice. First and foremost, there must be a mutual respect and trust between them, but they must also be able to work as a team and provide much needed leadership to the board. If that is in place, you are well on the way to being an effective board. Board and management are, after all, on the same side, but it’s a varying relationship – sometimes the board is directing, sometimes its listening and mentoring, but the key to being effective is also being able to understand the challenges faced by the CEO and his or her team, provide necessary support and to be that ‘critical friend’.

There needs to be honesty and openness and constructive criticism when required. Success should be recognised and celebrated with all staff, including the trustees.

Yes, problems do arise and conflict between the board and the executive can happen. Unfortunately these are the situations which attract adverse publicity - but they are only a small minority of the 23,000+ charities in Scotland, the overwhelming majority of whose boards operate without the conflict that makes the headlines. But are they effective? Perhaps that’s more debatable, but if you follow the principles set out above it will result in increased effectiveness, better trustee engagement, a happy management and a more successful organisation - which after all is why we become charity trustees in the first place.