I am currently a Trustee of two charities and have been on a couple of other Boards before. I have also been a CEO in the UK charity sector for 32 years, including leading a couple of the UK’s highest profile charities, and have worked with many others as a consultant.
Over the years I’ve worked with many Boards and staff teams, small and large, and I am always surprised by how little staff know or interact with their Trustees, or Trustees their staff, beyond the senior leadership. So, I was pleased to be asked to think about this question.
- The question is open to interpretation. I am assuming “staff” to mean there are at least a few employees (perhaps including volunteers) beyond the CEO and senior leaders, and that Trustees are keen to know what those staff think, directly, as distinct from asking the CEO.
- In this case, Trustees need to take great care about how they communicate with staff. They shouldn’t just bypass the CEO, so they need the CEO’s buy-in to discuss things with staff.
- The methodology is important – Trustees could get responses, for example, through a series of small group discussions, through a staff survey, a “suggestion box”, or a dedicated email address. Some of these could allow anonymous responses. A staff survey could allow responses identifiable only by group or team or function. There are structured surveys that you can buy into, like the Sunday Times Best 100 Not for Profit Organisations, or the Charity Pulse by Birdsong Consulting, or I’m sure Action Planning could help you design a bespoke survey.
- Generally, staff appreciate the chance to interact with Trustees, who can seem very distant, so it is a great idea to think about how to talk with them and hear their views, but what are the key questions?
For me the key questions are the ones that you need to know about if you are going to fulfill your key responsibilities as a Board of Trustees.
Number One for me is…
Culture & Wellbeing:
Are your staff being properly looked after? Is the culture of the organisation where you’d want it to be? Are regular staff surveys undertaken & the results shared with trustees? How do people feel about working for your organisation; would they recommend it to others as a great place to work? If not, why not? How is their work/life balance? What is staff turnover like, & why do people leave (exit interviews)? Are salaries benchmarked/ is minimum wage legislation complied with?
If staff are happy and proud to work for your organisation, it is likely to thrive! In my experience culture is THE most important ingredient for success. But when was the last time you saw it on the Board agenda?
Safeguarding and raising concerns: Do staff know and understand your safeguarding policies and procedures? Do they get regular training & support? Do they know how to raise concerns, including those that may involve senior leaders or even trustees? Do they feel safe if they blow the whistle? Are safeguarding incidents reported to the Board?
We are all having to pay close attention to safeguarding these days, and so we should. Trustees are responsible for ensuring the right procedures are in place, that they are known and understood and that people feel safe and comfortable to raise any issues and feel confident they’ll be addressed. If concerns can be raised & seen to be dealt with effectively, you’re less likely to be hit by damaging scandals.
Leadership: What do staff think about the performance of their CEO & senior leaders? And Trustees? Do you ask for their input when you appraise the CEO (360˚ feedback) or yourselves? Do they feel their leaders model the values & culture of the organisation?
One of the key responsibilities of the Board is to appoint and appraise the CEO and other senior leaders. Good leadership is critical, but how do you really know? 360 degree appraisal of the CEO involves asking people at all levels of the organisation for their input. As a CEO I found this especially helpful too.
What could we be doing better? Staff are the first to know when something is going wrong – and often how to put it right. Do you consult and involve them when you are thinking about strategy – or get them to lead the process and build it from the bottom up?
The staff are the ones who know the organisation and its work best. They are fully engaged every day. You can take the helicopter view as Trustees but you can’t build and implement a successful strategy without the input of the people at the coal face. If staff feel engaged and listened to, and know their ideas are valued, you are more likely to succeed.
Trustees are responsible for understanding and managing risks. What do staff think are the key risks you face? And how can they be mitigated? Staff know where the risks are – if Trustees don’t you could be in trouble.
So those are 5 questions Trustees should be asking. I’m sure you can think of more.