The need for higher quality board members in the third sector

September 2013

(Third sector definition: the part of an economy or society comprising non-governmental and non-profit-making organizations or associations, including charities, voluntary and community groups, cooperatives, etc.)

Our regional press carried a story a few weeks back about a local charity, involved with recycling household goods and waste, which was forced to close down and make its entire workforce redundant. The reasons for the closure were summarised as, basically, incompetence from the board of directors. The news saddened me because the charity was based only about 10 miles from where I live, plus I supported its aims and had used its services. But I wasn’t entirely surprised by the closure, and certainly wasn’t surprised by the reasons for it…

Since relocating to the north of Scotland four years ago, I’ve carried out a number of brand and marketing-based projects for charities and other organisations in the third sector. In general, these projects have been enjoyable, rewarding and successful for the client. However, they haven’t all been and the consistent factor which has played a part when things haven’t gone so well is the lack of quality in the board of directors – e.g. individuals not understanding issues, not adding value, and actually, in a few cases, being disruptive and destructive.

If you’re like me and most of your working life has been in the private sector, then a board of directors is comprised of, typically, well-paid individuals with core competences in specific business disciplines – e.g. HR, sales, IT, marketing – and often a handful of non-execs who add value through age, experience and a wealth of external contacts. No doubt for larger charities and other not-for-profit organisations the same applies, but for smaller operations this is not the case and indeed for all the organisations I’ve worked with the board has been entirely compromised of unpaid non-execs. That isn’t to say that all the individuals have been poor – some have been excellent and add massive value – but, in general, the standard is below what’s needed. And to give this point some context, when I say ‘the standard is below what’s needed’ I’ve presented to some board members who can’t even use a computer – let alone have any concept of what a brand is or what marketing can achieve for the organisation they represent.

So how do these people become board directors in the first place? In some cases because the regulations can’t prevent them (won’t bore you with the details here on why) but in most cases because the culture in the third sector makes any volunteer welcome – and in other ways that’s a good thing of course.

I’ve recently witnessed a shocking example of a very competent CEO whose fallen fowl of the regulator which, ultimately, has power over the organisation he runs, and this, from where I’m standing, partly as a result of a board of directors which didn’t, and couldn’t, fully support him. This just isn’t good enough and, coupled with the local charity closing for similar reasons, has prompted me to use my monthly comment to raise the profile of the problem.

Individuals that want to become board members in the third sector need to ask themselves two very important questions before they put their name forward:

1.    Do I strongly believe that I can add real value to the organisation?

2.    If yes, do I have the technical skills and knowledge to support my belief?

If ‘no’ to question one then don’t even move to question two, and if ‘no’ to question two then think about doing something else to help the organisation – e.g. there’s nothing wrong with making the sandwiches for evening board meetings and doing the washing up afterwards.

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