06 February 2019 by Sonia Sharma
The winner of 'The One to Watch' at the ICSA Awards 2018, discusses some of her role’s biggest challenges, learning as much as possible in her governance career and what the next year holds
I was really pleased to be shortlisted, it was a fantastic field and so I was delighted to win. It was also great to see non-profit governance really celebrated at the ceremony through this award and other winners as well.
I was always drawn to work in the charity sector. Initially I worked in fundraising and communications and ended up heading a development team at a national charity. There was a lot I enjoyed about this – operating at strategic level, reporting to trustees, sitting on a management team and working closely with different departments to promote what the organisation delivered.
However, I wanted to take on a qualification that would enable me to work across different types of charity and public sector organisations and that would mean that I could continue to work at that strategic level - so to me, governance was ideal.
To be able to observe and support board level conversations that have a direct impact on the young people we work with has been fascinating and rewarding.
I have been at Ark for four and a half years. I started working for Ark’s academy trust Ark Schools with a network of 350 governors across the country – a really large, committed and diverse group of volunteers – supporting them with recruitment, training and general troubleshooting.
Then I was lucky enough to take on a board-facing role within the trust, working with trustees and the risk and audit committee, as well as managing policies, internal audit and compliance.
For the last 18 months my role extended to also work across the ‘parent’ charity Ark that runs international education projects and incubates a range of education-focused ventures.
A key challenge involves keeping pace with evolving and increasing expectations from government and regulators and really ensuring the organisation continues to demonstrate good practice. It’s about making that time to keep a watching brief on what’s needed, translating that into how that should be applied within the academy trust and the charity and then engaging with senior leaders, committee members and trustees to make that happen.
A second would be that, depending on the size of the team around you, working in governance can feel like quite a ‘lone’ role at times. I think the more that governance professionals can get together and share practice, the better. Also for me, having a mentor in the first stage of my career who has encountered similar scenarios that I have and worked in some of the same sectors, has been really important.
Receiving this award has definitely been a highlight!
I would say it’s such a rewarding career and for anyone thinking of working in third sector governance, there’s more and more recognition of the need for, and value of, the role.
I would say invest in your personal development and training because it builds up your skills, credentials and gravitas.
I’d also say get a mentor – someone you can discuss your day-to-day work and ways to build your experience with – being able to talk to someone who has been there and done that is so valuable.
ICSA recruits and trains mentors, which is a great offer for young governance professionals.
During 2019 I will be taking on a ‘portfolio’ of governance roles, continuing my work at Ark part-time and taking on the role of part-time Company Secretary at another education charity, which will be great to get to know a new team and share practice across organisations.
I am also just taking on a board role myself for a not-for-profit education start-up and engaging at board level as a board member rather than as a company secretary will be really interesting.
You spend a lot of time working with and holding expectations of board members as a governance professional, but actually sitting around the table with a different hat on will be interesting!
For more highlights from the awards evening, visit