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  • Writer's pictureKathryn Sullivan

Board Roles

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

I’m often asked, during board development sessions, what roles should be included on a board.

It’s easy to start with the standard three – Chair, Treasurer, Secretary. What envelops the room in a deafening silence, though, is asking them why they have a treasurer. But we will come back to that.

Some boards have a couple more options up their sleeves. Many have an existing role for Deputy (or Vice) chair; they will acknowledge the role that staff play at board meetings and, although they are not typically trustees in a charity setting, the official nature of their place in the room is recognised.

Other boards consider the connections between different strands of work and the board; creating ‘project sponsor’ roles amongst trustees, to ensure that there is always a direct route to the board.

I tend to offer up around 15 potential roles that a board might want to consider as part of their make up. Don’t worry, I won’t list them here, because the point is not what I think should be on the board; it’s about what the trustees themselves might see as valuable. What I do intend to outline here, is a process for establishing what roles any charity might want to consider, and some tips for making them count.


Boardroom

So, how do you know what roles you need? Well, start off by forgetting the title. As I mentioned earlier, trustees often clam up when asked why they need a treasurer. But then I ask them this: Would having a trustee who specialises in a niche area relevant to the charity’s operations be helpful? Someone who could take a lead on that work with the remaining trustees? There’s always a resounding ‘Yes!’. And that’s a treasurer! (and other board expert roles).

Focus on the need you are trying to fulfil.

The board has a set of responsibilities as outlined in Charity Commission guidance, CC3 – The Essential Trustee – is there something you aren’t quite meeting? Is there a part of the operational side of the board that is just not up to scratch?

Common areas are:

Finance

Board Development – both individually and as a collective

Board admin

Liaison with staff

Special projects

Links with beneficiaries

Links with funders/commissioners

Board level communications

Then, establish whether these roles need to be functions of existing trustees (such as special projects liaison), a specified role (such as chair), or a non-trustee (staff, advisor, presenter).

Set out this purpose with a few descriptors attached – some roles might benefit from a full profile, others simply a note in the minutes. Clearly defined parameters always help a person understand the responsibilities and limitations of a given role. Remember to ensure that the role doesn't become a "job", or absolve other trustees of their responsibilities; treasurers, for example, should give confidence to the other trustees to ask their own questions about finances.


Lastly, review these roles on a regular basis. It surprises me how many people reduce down the role of chair to facilitating the meeting. Obviously, this is an important element of most chairs’ responsibilities, but it is only one; how do we get to that mindset? By not having a proper look at what it IS there to do!

A good facilitator can help you do all these things, but what trustee boards really need is time. Carving out space for the range of things you could be doing is a whole other blog topic in itself, but this is one area to prioritise.

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