Stronger charities through good leadership: ‘Changing the Chemistry’

By Susan Murray, Trustee, the ICAS Foundation

7 November 2016

As Trustees’ Week 2016 begins, Susan Murray shares her insights into why good leadership is not just the reserve of business and is essential for the success of all charities.

It is important charity trustees understand that leadership goes way beyond the CEO and Chair of the organisation. Even though trustees give their time freely as volunteers, ultimately for charities the buck stops with their trustee board.

Alan Yentob found this out to his cost when he was forced to stand down as Creative Director for the BBC, losing his £183,000 salary, after the controversy from his volunteer position as Chair of the charity Kids Company. His experience, while not typical, highlights the pressures that charity trustees can face as illustrated by the latest National Trustee Survey.

As with other types of organisation, the relationship between the charity’s Chair and CEO is critical but so is that of the rest of the board.

Gone are the days when trustee recruitment is simply by a tap on the shoulder to someone’s friend. Nowadays everyone is much more aware of the dangers and pitfalls of ‘group-think’ on boards, so there is much more open advertisement of charity positions in places like Good Moves.

In Scotland, we are lucky to have the Changing the Chemistry movement, which is working hard to increase the diversity of thought on all boards, including charities. It’s important that trustees ask questions and interrogate the information they are given.

Being a good trustee takes time, not just to read and digest the meeting papers but to meet stakeholders and staff to ensure you have a full picture of the organisation.

Trustees should go in with their eyes are open to the personal and professional risks, undertake due diligence and understand the time commitment. As the National Trustee Survey shows more than a quarter of charity trustees have considered resigning because of the pressure.

At a recent Changing the Chemistry seminar, one member spoke openly about her journey and reflections from being on the board of a charity that was forced to close. She wished she had trusted her gut instinct that there were issues sooner and asked more questions, as this might have enabled the board to turn the organisation around.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but so are trustees who are engaged and continually open to learning from others.

Charities are increasingly under public scrutiny, so it’s important to ensure trustees individually and collectively have considered how they operate as well as their trustee duties. For charities, trust is critical - once it’s gone, it’s very difficult to get back.

Many charities, including the ICAS Foundation, have adopted the Nolan Principles as part of the board governance code. It is more than twenty years now since the principles were first written but they stand the test of time well.

There is also support available for charity trustees from organisations like the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO). As well as a governance guide there is a mediation service which could be useful if there are specific issues on the board.

If you are thinking of volunteering to become a charity trustee, I can thoroughly recommend it. Even though the time commitment of the ICAS Foundation has been far more than I originally envisaged when I started over 5 years ago, I get great satisfaction from being part of a team, working together to change people’s lives for the better.

About the author: Susan Murray has over 20 years’ experience in the public, private and charity sectors. She is currently a Trustee of the ICAS Foundation, Board Member of Scottish Natural Heritage and Director, Agent M Ltd. She is also a Clore Social Leadership Fellow and a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and Changing the Chemistry.


  • Charities

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