New Charity Governance Code – what are the implications for civic societies?

Last year, the Charity Commission consulted on a proposed code of governance. This has now been published and is available on-line at https://www.charitygovernancecode.org/en.

While the new Code is at the moment just guidance, it is based on current legal requirements and recommended practice. It is set out under 7 principles (see above taken from their website) and introduces the notion of ‘apply or explain’ – in other words, charities should apply the code’s principles wherever they can but explain those instances where, for whatever reason, they cannot apply the recommendations of the Code.

Much that is in the Code will be familiar already, this is evolution not revolution, but there are some interesting new recommendations about recruitment and retention of trustees – i.e., your committee members – which will have far-reaching implications for many societies. Not least of these is the recommendation that trustees serve for a maximum of 9 years.

Now, I’m writing this as someone who has served as a trustee on the committee of Wakefield Civic Society for nearly 28 years and who has been president/chair of the Society for nearly 16 years at the time of writing. On top of that, I have been a trustee of the Yorkshire and Humber Association of Civic Societies (YHACS) for coming up for 16 years and chair of the Association for nearly 7 years. The Wakefield Civic Society committee has 5 members who have been in office for over 9 years and the YHACS committee 3. I suspect that many civic societies (and other community groups for that matter) will be in the similar position of having long-serving committee trustees. I wonder what would happen if the 9-year rule was to be made mandatory?

I’m fairly sure that the Charity Commission is not intending that there should be a mass clear-out of charity stalwarts whose tireless energies and enthusiasm keeps so many small charities running. To mandate that would cause huge problems and possibly lead to the closure of some charities unable to find willing volunteers to take on the vacated roles.

However, I can understand the thinking about the new recommendation; indeed, when I advocated changing the YHACS constitution at the end of 2016 so as to set a six-year time limit on the role of YHACS chair, I had seen the writing on the wall, or at least on various internet pages in which the thinking on charity governance had been widely discussed.

There are benefits and problems associated with having long-serving trustees. Benefits include building experience, local knowledge and contacts – all very useful facets of being an effective trustee. Problems, on the other hand, are trustees being so-closely identified with the charity and their roles within the organisation that others perceive trustee selection, particularly for key officer posts, as something of a closed-shop or done deal. This can be an effective barrier to the recruitment of new trustees – people don’t want to challenge a long-standing post holder for fear of causing upset of embarrassment or because they don’t think the charity would back a newcomer against an existing and no doubt respected candidate.

There’s another problem of allowing someone to serve more or less indefinitely and that is complacency. We’re all so relieved that someone has agreed to serve that we can breathe easy, thankful that the post is filled. While ever there is someone willing to have a go, let them get on with it! Don’t rock the boat! etc., etc. The trouble then is that when these long-serving committee members do want to step down, there are no processes in place, or no candidates in waiting, to allow for a transition, and the results can be fatal to the survival of the charity. A number of civic societies in our own region have folded in recent years because they cannot find people willing to serve on their committees.

Another problem, of course, is that if your committee is predominantly ‘white, middle class and retired’, there’s a good chance your membership will come from this social group as well. Your committee will mirror your membership and vice versa.

The new Charity Code of Governance points us in the direction we need to be thinking about (at section 5.7 on Board [for which read Committee] Effectiveness):

5.7 Overseeing appointments
5.7.1 There is a formal, rigorous and transparent procedure to appoint new trustees to the board, which includes advertising vacancies widely.
5.7.2 The search for new trustees is carried out, and appointments or nominations for election are made, on merit, against objective criteria and considering the benefits of diversity. The board regularly looks at what skills it has and needs, and this affects how new trustees are found.
5.7.3 Trustees are appointed for an agreed length of time, subject to any applicable constitutional or statutory provisions relating to election and re-election. If a trustee has served for more than nine years, their reappointment is subject to a particularly rigorous review and takes into account the need for progressive refreshing of the board explained in the trustees’ annual report

You can see from this that applying the rule of ‘Buggin’s turn’ won’t wash in future, nor will allowing someone to run and run be acceptable either – there will only be so many occasions that you can explain away why your society failed to find a new chair or trustee and so allowed someone to continue to clock up the mileage.

As I said above, this is not yet mandatory, but I do think we all need to start thinking about the implications of the new code and its recommendations. Even if the 9-year rule isn’t yet a requirement, it is probably in the best interests of your charity to act as if the recommendation is likely to become mandatory at some point and to start thinking now about how you can improve the processes for recruitment of trustees.

Looking into the Future – how to plan a ‘future’ strategy for your civic society

I recently met with the committee of a long-established civic society to discuss ideas for rejuvenating their society and attracting new members. It was a very enjoyable outing for me: I was able to suggest some ideas that they could incorporate into their strategy and they offered me tea and cake: a fair exchange!

I regularly find myself in conversation with people wondering what the future holds for their societies and how they can keep things going in the medium to longer term, not just for the benefit of their existing members but also as a way of attracting the next generation of committee members.

Now, I make no claims about being able to see into the future but one of the characteristics of successful organisations (and individuals for that matter) is a capacity to consider what the future might hold for them. This allows them to develop strategies to ensure they can cope with whatever the future might bring.

There is a structured technique, sometimes known as ‘Horizon Scanning’, that can be employed by any organisation to plot a course to the future. It’s about looking ahead to see what trends you can identify and how the changes brought about by these trends will impact upon your organisation. There are, of course, books you can buy on management techniques that will cover this concept in much more detail should you wish to read them and they’ll certainly do the subject more justice than I can here in the space available, but bear with me while I outline the principles.

Let’s say you want to work out what might lie ahead for your civic society. Get together a few people who really understand what your society is about – this is most likely to be your committee but could also include people from the wider membership or even people who have recently stood down from the committee.

Now, here’s a tough one. How ‘up to date’ are the members of your group in their thinking and awareness of what is happening in the world at large? Are they trend setters and trailblazers (or do they just tend to wear nice blazers)? Ideally, you need one at least a few people in the group who are knowledgeable or have given some thought to what is happening in the wider world. If you don’t have them, go out and see if you can find them.

Ask them to start thinking about the changes likely to happen within society over the next 10 to 20 years. You can ask them to use a STEP (or PEST) analysis (Social, Technological, Economic, Political and add Environmental if you want to make it STEEP, or Legal and Ethical if you fancy STEEPLE!).

This needs to be done in a structured but uncensored way (we all tend to censor our thinking – or at least what we say out loud, when in groups), by which I mean, encourage people to put forward ideas, however flippant, without evaluating them at this stage. Ask them to think of ‘best case’ and ‘worst case’ scenarios: from the best of all possible worlds to a dystopian nightmare.

Ask your group to write their thoughts of what could happen — best and worst outcomes — under each STEP/STEEP/STEEPLE topic on separate Post-It Notes, then take everyone’s Post-It Notes and see if you can arrange them into themes. The idea is to produce coherent visions for what might happen to society at large, both good and bad.

So, if for example, one of your participants imagined the possibility that there would be a surge in community spirit over the next few years on one Post-It Note, perhaps inspired by government campaigns and initiatives, and someone else had written that people would have more leisure time (because, perhaps, technology will make working hours shorter), you could group these (four) ideas together. Conversely, someone could have imagined that there would be a growing crisis of community engagement as technology enables us to lead more and more individual lifestyles where we don’t need to step outside our front doors; in fact rising crime would make it dangerous to do so. What are the demographic trends in your locality? What’s happening, or likely to happen, to the high street? Will we still need to rely on privately owned motor cars? Etc., etc. etc..

Then, develop these scenarios, perhaps informed by extra research that these days can be done on line. You only need two or three comprehensive scenarios—one very positive, perhaps, one less so and one outright depressing. The chances are that the middle one will be closest to reality but some elements from either of the other two could also work their way into your selected scenario over time, so don’t throw the others away and keep them under review.

The trick then is to work out what these scenarios would mean for your civic society if the predicted outcomes were to materialise and then to develop strategies to prepare your society to respond to what’s coming over the hill.

For example, how would you cope with a sudden influx of new members who all wanted to join the committee? If nothing else, this should get you thinking and talking.

Have fun!

(If you would be interested in hearing my talk – I’ve seen the future and it’s sooner that you think!, which can also be run as a workshop, have a look at my Talks page.)