When you are based 200+ miles away, deciding whether to attend seminars is a challenging call because of the cost in terms of both time and money.

What made a recent seminar at the Westminster Policy Forum, primarily about what’s going on in Charity governance, so worthwhile was the quality of the speakers and the debate. Did I agree with everything? Not at all but much of it was inherent common sense. So, reflections on the things I don’t think were adequately aired...

Good quality Trustees are of paramount importance in an organisation but so is a good quality executive. One of the speakers noted that the Trustees own the charity, its ethos and its strategy. The executive were only fleetingly referred to. When they were it was in a way that framed them as disposable commodities, there to hire and fire as the Trustees see fit. Technically this may be correct but in my view it’s short sighted.

Successful charities need strategies that are clearly focused on the needs of beneficiaries and of course it’s a key role of Trustees to provide this. They also need the right team to deliver and implement those strategies and this happens best, and therefore delivers the charitable remit most effectively, where there are strong Trustees and a strong Executive working in partnership. That partnership must have at its heart mutual trust and respect. You should not be employing staff at any level if this is not the case. Good Trustee – Executive relationships result in robust challenge, critical appraisal and organisational development.

The definition of governance as being about attitudes, values, experience and common sense is absolutely spot on. No amount of policies, procedures, returns and declarations can ensure good governance. It’s all about organisational values, standards and culture.  For obvious reasons the spot light is on charities at the moment but if the internal culture is right then unacceptable practices are far less likely to surface. That’s not about regulation it’s about both organisational and individual standards and people having the courage and using their voice to challenge when they see something wrong.

Do not underestimate the difficulties in recruiting good Trustees and do not devalue and dismiss those that step up to the plate. It’s not just about any Trustee either, passion for the mission of the charity is a non negotiable. Bernard Jenkins may know plenty of London lawyers and bankers looking to do good works but hear the voices of the charities who are living governance day to day. Getting good Trustees on board is simply not easy, please let’s not pretend it is.

When you are away from the London centre, as we are in rural Cumbria, it’s even more difficult to get a diverse and balanced board. Let’s not just dismiss people as “stale pale males”. It’s just too cheap and easy. If we’re to achieve real change in the sector, then we really need a proper conversation about how to empower individuals from a whole range of backgrounds to take on the Trustee role. It may be entirely right that we want to retain the volunteer ethos, but what about paying organisations to give their staff time to deliver the role within their jobs? Engaging with employers? This needs imaginative, creative solutions. I am not suggesting I have them but let’s hear it being discussed.

Let’s also remember what Jay Kennedy had to say, the most important people here are our beneficiaries. Regulation, guidance and everything else is about better outcomes for them not about keeping the tabloid press happy. But also remember, this isn’t just about charities it’s about the society we have created and we should all, politicians included, remember, reflect and react to that.

Article by Heather Dixon, Finance Director of Brathay. She is also a chartered accountant, parent, vice chair of governors at the Queen Katherine School and Director of the Queen Katherine School Multi Academy Trust in Kendal.