Interview with Dorothy Dalton, editor of Governance magazine - Refugee Council
December 9, 2009

Interview with Dorothy Dalton, editor of Governance magazine

What’s the aim of Governance magazine?

Our aim is to improve governance in the voluntary and community sector. The magazine is targeted more at at charities which are managed by paid staff
 but we try to make it easy to read for anyone. We focus on sharing good practice and learning from bad practice.

How did you first get involved with governance issues?

My first direct experience of governance came as a head teacher working with the school’s governing body. Having promised myself a second career I then left teaching and worked first for a charity and then for the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), which at that time was a very small organisation. At ACEVO we were offering support to chief executives who had fallen out with the chairs of their trustee board, so to be more effective we decided to try and address the issues before they arose. At the time very few organisations were looking at governance questions in a serious way and we could see there was a real need for it.

How would you define ‘governance’?

Under charity law, trustees are the people who have control over management and administration of the charity. The key thing is that, while they can delegate their authority, they can’t delegate their responsibility. Not all trustees understand that – it’s a very important role, they are holding the charity in the public’s trust.

And what, in your opinion, makes for good governance?

I would point to five main things that trustees need to consider.

1) They should be very clear about the charity’s aim’s, objectives and strategy.
2) They are responsible for the charity’s performance, impact, culture and values.
3) They are responsible for implications relating to the law, regulations and
4) They are responsible for guarding the charity’s assets (including intangible assets such as the organisation’s good name and reputation).
5) They must manage risk without becoming too risk-averse.

It’s also important for trustees to remember that they are allowed to change their mind! Just because the organisation has always done something a certain way, doesn’t mean that new methods and approaches can’t be introduced.

What do you think are the most challenging issues faced by trustees of small and medium-sized charities?

At the moment, with the recession, I think the main challenge is raising funds – lots of charities are facing real difficulties. There are no easy answers but one thing that trustees can do is try to ensure that they develop a good relationship with donors or funders – we call this donor care. It’s amazing how often organisations forget to even say ‘thank you’ to people or organisations that give them money, but a little gratitude and some regular updates on how the money is being spent will go a long way to improving the chances for future funding.

Another good idea to achieve effective and healthy governance is to get people from outside the trustee board involved as much as possible. Fundraising is a great way to bring in friends, family and anyone else who might have a little time to help.

Working with other charities in the local area can also help. If trustees can find even small ways to cooperate with others it can save money and demonstrate to funders that you have the ability to work in partnership.

What’s the ideal composition of a representative trustee board?

Ideally the board should be diverse and balanced in a way that both represents the charity’s community and brings in the necessary expertise. But that really is an ideal! In the real world it’s often a case of just finding people who are willing to put in the work. But to achieve any kind of community representation, the trustees really need to listen to their community’s needs. Anyone with a commitment to your organisation should be a valuable asset.

The same goes for the length of time that trustees should serve. Ideally I’d say that it should be for no more than three, three-year terms, making nine years in total – that way you should be getting new trustees on a fairly regular basis without having the disruption of frequent change. But, in the real world, if trustees are hard to find it might be difficult and impractical to let people go if they want to stay.

How important is the role of chair?

I think it’s crucial. The chair of trustees needs to show leadership to the board but not dictatorship. They should be very aware of the role and responsibilities of trustees and able to help trustees fulfil these. They also have the task of line-managing the chief executive.

However, it’s important to remember that the chair has no authority unless it is delegated by the trustee board as a whole. The chair should be answerable to the board, not the other way round.

What do you think about so-called ‘founder syndrome’ – where the person who set up a charity is unwilling to relinquish any control?

I’m the founder of a charity myself, so I know all about that! It certainly can be difficult, especially if the founder has filled the board with people who are unwilling to challenge them. The best approach, I think, is to ask the founder what would happen if they were unable, for whatever reason, to carry on. They wouldn’t want the organisation to grind to a halt, would they? So certain policies and procedures need to be written down and some tasks delegated so not everything is reliant on them. Perhaps they might even consider the appointment of a deputy.

How important is it for trustees to keep up-to-date with new legislation?

You have to be realistic. You need to be aware of the main issues relating to areas of your charity’s work such as health and safety and accounting – and there’s a lot of information on the Charity Commission website that can help. But it’s unrealistic to expect small charities to keep up to date with every nuance of charity law.

Finally, you’ve been a trustee yourself for a number of organisations; what is it that you like about the role?

I really enjoy it. Like most people, my main motivation is to make a difference; to put the work in and see that, in some way, people’s lives have been changed for the better.