Why charity trustees matter: Getting governance and accountability right

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Professor John Diamond (Director of the University’s I4P) comments on the report on Kids Company by a Parliamentary investigation:

The details of the collapse of the charity Kids Company are likely to be subject to much debate and criticism. The likely negative impact on the lives of those young people who relied on the support of staff who worked for Kids Company cannot be underestimated.

The media fascination with the charity and the willingness of most senior political leaders to look for a photo opportunity with its founder and many of its users probably did no one any favours in the long term.

One of the key learning points in the report which is being discussed today is the role of the trustees. A really central element in keeping charities going is the role of the trustees. They have the responsibility to exercise oversight and keep an eye on the financial health of the organisation. Both require close engagement with the work of the charity and both require trustees to take their roles seriously. And it appears too as if the chair of the Kids Company trustees had been in that role for over 15 years. As a small sign of good practice you would want the chair of the board to change and certainly serve not more than 5 or 6 years.

Declaration of interest: I am chair of a small national charity and we have term limits for our chair and I will be finishing this November after 3 years in the role. Fixed term limits requires trustees to think of succession planning and making changes. Trustees (whilst needing support and training) can become over connected with the charity and of course you want them to be advocates and proud supporters, but they as well to be the critical voice or the questioning voice ensuring that the aims and values of the charity are being met. And with charities that are set up and led by strong and very committed personalities it is important to have a strong set of trustees too. They are there to protect the charity for as long as they feel able.

Getting the governance and accountability processes right is about protecting those that depend on it too. Sadly it looks as if Kids Company is going to be a case study in the failure of governance rather than in a celebration of what can be achieved by the charity and not for profit sector.