Primary responsibility rests with trustees

Allegations, accusations and counter-accusations continue to fly around the collapse of Kids Company. It is not my purpose to comment on any of the specific claims in detail, however, as a charity trustee myself, it gives me pause to reflect on my own practice and the governance arrangements of the charity on whose board I serve.

The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), which looked into the failure of Kids Company, makes some pretty stark comments about the role and responsibility of trustees and the constitution of a charity’s board. ‘Primary responsibility for Kids Company’s collapse,’ it rightly states, ‘rests with the charity’s Trustees.’ It then draws attention to the Charity Commission’s guidance that requires trustees to ‘make decisions solely in the charity’s interests, so they shouldn’t allow their judgement to be swayed by personal prejudices or dominant personalities.’

Further, it observes that not only should trustees have ‘the necessary skills, and … the appropriate attitude towards responsible governance’ but also that ‘all charities [should] ensure that some members of the Board have experience of the area relevant to the charity’s activities.’

How could it be otherwise? I have no direct experience of the work that the charity whose board I serve carries out (I bring other skills and knowledge, I assure you!), but I am enormously reassured by the presence on the board of a number of members who do. Without them, I would be almost entirely at the mercy of the executive team, a situation that PACAC specifically deplores: ‘The Kids Company’s Board of Trustees lacked the experience of youth services or psychotherapy necessary to interrogate the decisions of the Founder-Chief Executive.’

The presence of sector specialists, supported by the more general business and finance skills of other board members, certainly enables robust challenge around the boardroom table, and gives confidence to those of us from outside the sector. I would, however, add that this is necessary but not sufficient. It does not ensure that this challenge takes place, especially in the presence of an executive team who hold many of the cards.

I am also conscious of having to do a lot of extra work: through reading the monthly business updates; through keeping abreast of sector developments (by subscribing to news services, reading the charity’s own publications, following activities on social media); and through being prepared at meetings to be unpopular – never an easy thing.

What I cannot do, and what I suspect may too often happen, is treat a charity trustee position as a form of glorified, late career ‘CV-enhancement’. I might not be paid, but that does not mean it is not work. It is time-consuming and hard work too, if done properly, which I hope I do.

Above all, it has been brought home to me in my charity trustee work just how great the opportunity is for a powerful executive to exploit a weak or weak-minded board – a board that may neither be in full possession of the facts nor a more sensitive ‘feel’ for how the organisation in its entirety behaves (especially under pressure). I sometimes question how doable this job is at all, operating at arms’ length from the real action. If I feel like that about a fairly small charity, how much more must it be true for non-executive directors of much larger, possibly multi-national, businesses?

Chris Glennie is Business Development Director for ICSA. In this role, he is responsible for the development of the Institute's portfolio of qualifications, the development and smooth running of all member and student services, as well as all marketing communications activity.

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