The Case for Trustee Appraisals

I work with Trustee Boards around the country – and I’ve been the CEO of two charities – and I’m often surprised by continued resistance to the idea of Trustee appraisals:

Some fear it will discourage people from becoming Trustees.

Some are affronted at the idea that volunteers should be questioned or critiqued.

And some simply can’t see the point and think their time and resources are better spent elsewhere.

Trustee appraisals are expected by the Charity Governance Code – a document that so impressed the Charity Commission that it withdrew its own Hallmarks of an Effective Charity standard.

This isn’t a new idea – it’s been around for years, but the sector still sees resistance from Boards at its implementation.

The Charity Governance Code for smaller charities sets out an expectation for Boards to review their own performance and that of their chair, including:

“the board’s balance of skills, experience and knowledge, its diversity, how the board works together and other factors that affect its effectiveness”

Individual trustees are also expected to be able to explain how they check their own performance.

The Code’s version for larger charities goes even further than this, recommending an external evaluation to be undertaken every three years.

Here are five reasons why Trustee appraisals are absolutely crucial to good governance and the effective functioning of charities.

1.   No one else is overseeing Boards.

Trustee Boards have little to no oversight externally. In smaller charities, the Charity Commission is highly unlikely to get involved unless things go badly wrong. And, when I say badly, I’m talking about fraud and other criminal activity, rather than the more run-of-the-mill mismanagement and breaches of charity standards.

 In the absence of any external oversight mechanism, internal appraisals are the only way that Trustees will gain the opportunity to learn, develop and avoid repeating mistakes.

2.      Those in a position of responsibility and power must be accountable.

If you think it is important to appraise your CEO (which it is!), then it’s just as important to appraise your Board. Board members have the ability to make major decisions affecting beneficiaries and staff, and they should be accountable for this. In membership charities, members usually have some influence over Board composition, but this is not the case in non-membership charities. Without some form of appraisal, decisions can potentially be made in a vacuum, with no consequences, no learning and no accountability.

Appraisals give the opportunity for Trustees to reflect on their successes and failures and, ideally, give other stakeholders (such as staff, volunteers and beneficiaries), the opportunity to feed into the process. Done well, it is a positive, constructive and rewarding process.

3.      Many Trustees are not experienced in the charity sector, causing risks that need to be managed.

It is primarily in the third sector that we see people with little to no experience of an industry lead organisations within it. Trustees are often experienced in their own fields, but lack knowledge and experience in the charity sector specifically. Despite this, Trustees are responsible for meeting and upholding detailed charity standards and regulations. Without appraisals – and I’ve seen this many times – Trustees are not given the opportunity to identify areas where their knowledge is inadequate, which can lead to serious consequences for the charity.

Appraisals give the opportunity for Trustees to understand the requirements of the charity sector, and identify areas where they or the Board may need additional or external support and guidance.

4.      Appraisals can improve staff-Board relationships.

Having worked with many different small-to-medium charities, I’m yet to find one that doesn’t have difficulties of some kind in managing relationships between the staff and Board. Both sides can become highly frustrated with each other, and the two most common accusations made against Trustee Boards by staff is that they are either too involved in operations and fail to understand the nature of their role, or that they are too distant from the charity and don’t listen to, or engage sufficiently with, the staff and beneficiaries.

Appraisals which allow the staff to feed into the process ensure that Trustees can resolve or understand problems within the relationship. The process can highlight what staff appreciate and value about Trustees, as well as what they’d like to see changed. This can help Trustees understand the staff perspective, and either identify areas where staff understanding of the Trustee role could improve or where Trustee behaviour should change.

5.       It provides the opportunity for continuous learning and development.

Charities and their staff are expected to embrace continuous learning and development, whether that’s through their projects, their strategic planning cycle, or as individuals through their own appraisal systems. The same should be done for Trustee Boards.

No-one is an expert on everything, and everyone involved in a charity has a responsibility to do their best to identify their areas for growth – both individually and as a group – and see learning and development as a lifelong activity that is an opportunity, not an inconvenience or an offence.

How to do it?

Resources are limited and workloads are high in almost all charities, but there are options for undertaking meaningful appraisals to meet the needs of all. Some ideas include:

 A. Do it internally. 

Nominate someone internal – whether a Trustee, staff member, Secretary or volunteer – to develop a process and implement it. There are guidance documents available, as well as resources that can be purchased. Where possible, try to choose someone with experience on a Board and in running appraisals.

B. Do a charity swap.

If you feel that there is someone on your Board or staff team who understands the requirements of a Trustee role well, and you recognise that another charity has someone similar in post, then why not appraise each other? It is important to ensure that the process is robust and effective, so both nominees should have a strong understanding of charitable governance. Having an external person come in should enhance the independence of the review, increasing the constructive value of the feedback gathered.

C. Get the professionals in.

Charity consultants can help with designing a tool for you to use internally, or can conduct a full and robust independent appraisal. Some Boards combine independent Board appraisals with a full governance review every 3-5 years, with a lighter touch internal appraisal process held annually. This can be really helpful and the costs can be reasonable, especially if you get help setting up your ongoing process at the time of your first independent review.

Why it matters

In my experience, the charities that get themselves into major problems tend not to have an appraisal process. They are less likely to seek professional help when needed, and they are also less likely to have robust recruitment and induction procedures in place for Trustees. Getting a good appraisal system in place will help your charity to become more robust and effective – so what are you waiting for?

If you need practical and affordable assistance with establishing a Trustee appraisal system or carrying out an external appraisal, please get in touch with me, Felicia Willow, at Willow Charity Consulting.