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How to be a great charity trustee, Brian Cavanagh

Brian Cavanagh joins Purposely to share what it takes to be an impactful and effective trustee on a charity board or a governance committee.

Brian has decades of experience leading Boards in the UK and Ireland that helped him write the book, Governing With Purpose: How to lead a brilliant board.

His inspiration for the book came when he unsuccessfully tried to find useful resources for existing or prospective trustees. He found lots of books on corporate governance of the private sector but very little for trustees of 'for purpose' organisations and charities. This obvious gap in the market motivated Brian to write this book so that he could help others to be effective and impactful non-profit trustees.

Brian outlines what it takes to be a 'brilliant board' as well as an effective trustee and he describes his ethos around governance. Explaining that the Chair of the Board is responsible for the Board while the CEO is responsible for performance and leadership of the organisation.

'Chairs, trustees and CEOs need to understand each other's roles, respect each other's responsibilities and work together towards a common and agreed mission.'

He also gives thoughts on where boards and organisations go wrong and rather than being overly concerned about those headline-hitting organisations, he is more concerned about Boards that are detached from the mission or are in 'cruise mode'.

'My concern is not the crises that happen occasionally, my concern is the indifference, or the lack of aspiration a board has for itself.'

Brian points to organisations that stumble along, doing quite good work and because nothing has gone wrong there seems no need to intervene at Board or exec levels.

'It's about ensuring the culture of performance of ambition for the board for itself. I think the danger is we focus on crisis and we actually need to support our boards to do the right thing'.

Brian outlines what is most important for charity boards and the people that operate on them.

'It needs to be led by skilled, committed individuals who also good at governing the organisation.'

Brian talks about the intangibles and how important the culture and the day-to-day behaviour of the board, the executive team and the employees is in supporting the vision and the purpose of the charity.

'Do board members challenge each other to be better and how often do they contest opinions, how often do they disagree or debate about the purpose, direction and performance of the charity'.

Brian also calls out 'bad behaviour', pointing to people not turning up, not reading the Board papers and people not asking questions or challenging decisions. Brian believes that a strong sense of purpose combined with a solid structure will provide an effective antidote that will stop any bad behaviour, or at least ensure it is stamped out quickly. A strong sense of purpose for why the Board exists, why it includes the people it does and what role will it be performing and what responsibilities will it be taking on in the future.

'So it’s imperative trustees ask themselves, why was the charity set up in the first place?, what is trying to achieve and what is the purpose of the Board they have been asked to join?'.

Brian also stresses that it is fundamentally important that people join Boards for the right reasons, 'not just as a favour to a friend’, but rather because they believe in the cause, believe they can contribute by utilising their skills and experience and they have the time and space to commit to the meetings and actions.

Brian's book Governing with Purpose is an essential resource for people on Boards or those considering joining a Board.


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