4. The committee’s role in governance

What does governance involve?

Your governance role involves 3 principle things.

1. Setting the direction of the organisation

2. Determining the strategy you will use to get there

3. Being held to account for your decisions and holding to account those who carry out your wishes.

A 4th is often added and that concerns that committee‘s role in looking at itself and paying attention to how it operates as a collective body.

Finally some feel there is a 5th role as a ‘boundary spanner’. In other words acting as a link between the organisation and the outside world.

What do you mean by 1. ‘setting the direction of the organisation’?

Governance comes from the latin ‘governare’ to steer and the root for helmsman. So the key analogy is the helmsman – the person at the rudder. Steering involved knowing the ultimate destination and plotting the course to get there. An organisation without an ultimate destination is ‘rudderless’ – an apt description in our case. Its difficult to be precise as every organisations varies; some organisations may be able to set their direction very precisely, for example ‘work towards ending child poverty in the UK’. Others may be deliberating vaguer as an ultimate destination may be out of sight ‘over the horizon’ – to continue the nautical analogy. Indeed for some organisations in the Institutional phase of their life may have their ultimate direction already mapped out for them, such as Churches and other established religions.

So how do we set the direction?

Ultimately, this is for the committee to decide, in conjunction with their members. For some this may be obvious – for example a committee that has been formed expressly to campaign to save an open space – its direction, or goal, is clear. For many committees in this position it is 2, determining the strategy used to there that is the most important role. For many existing committees the direction was laid down by the founders, though even in this case it may be appropriate to revisit the original goals from time to time. For most committees setting the direction is a decision like any other, albeit the most important decision, and is made using the usual three step process, clarify, debate, decide.

We are a registered charity so surely this is all laid down in our objects in the constitution?

The problem with your objects is that they tend to be written very vaguely in order not to limit the potential scope of your activities too much, as the founders had no way of knowing what will happen in the future that may impact on the organisation. So the objects themselves may not really be a clear enough declaration of what the organisation is currently trying to achieve.

What do you mean by 2. ‘determine the strategy used to get there’?

In our example above, the committee formed to save an open space, their direction/goal is obvious – to save the space. But they must also decide how they are going to do it. This for them is the bigger question – do they lobby decision makers, or rely of direct action? Should they put their efforts into a petition or letter writing campaign to local newspapers? There is more than one way to skin a cat – which strategy you take is the committee’s decision.

We’ve decided on the organisations direction but we need some way of making our intention clear to the outside world. What should we do?

Funders and others have become very fond of ‘mission statements’ and the ‘business plan’ or ‘strategic plan’ as ways of expressing 1 and 2. But it is important to realize that there are many ways of expressing these ideas, depending on the size of the organisation and the complexity of the ideas. For some a mission statement may be enough. A mission statement is merely is a concise definition of what your committee is there for, usually covering what you are going to do, who you will do it for, why and sometimes how – all in a sentence or two. An important consideration when thinking about how to express these ideas is to make them readily accessible to your audience. The Local Authority may request a business plan but your ideas may be far more accessible expressed as a poster, or a pamphlet.

We agree with 3, being accountable – but we can’t seem to agree what this means in practice. I feel it means being accountable to the local Council, another committee member feels we just need to give an account of our activities to members.

Accountability does have a number of aspects. Ultimately the most important one is that you as the committee are ultimately accountable for the organisation. Who you are accountable to depends on you legal status and constitution. A charitable association would be accountable to the regulator (the Charity Commission) and to the members. In addition you would be accountable to funders for the funds they have given you to spend and you may feel morally accountable to wider group of stakeholders such as local people and partner organisations.

Is giving an account the same as being accountable?

Giving an account of the committee’s activities, for example at the AGM, is one way of demonstrating your accountability to members. The members hold you to account for the committees’ actions and if they disapprove they can refuse to approve your report (account).

What about the staff? How do the members hold them to account?

It’s the committee who hold the staff to account – not the members directly. It is part of the committee’s role to direct the activities of the organisation, delegating tasks to the staff and holding them to account for carrying out these directions. This is usually done through regular reports to the committee and/or a system of supervision running in a hierarchy from the lowest staff or volunteer up to the chair.

What does 4 mean? Surely it’s obvious what we need to do. We should just get on and do it shouldn’t we?

It is an irony that thought the committee reflects deeply on issues concerning the organisation, the committee itself often escapes consideration. Yet the committee may be composed of a number of disparate individuals with different backgrounds, aspirations and outlooks on life. As this group’s role is to make decisions jointly, it is necessary for them to have some common understanding. Think of a sports team analogy; the committee meeting is like a match. There are few sports where we would expect the team to play well without some degree of reflection on the team and probably some element of training/coaching. As committees have become less homogenous (i.e. less likely to be made up of people with similar backgrounds who think and act in a similar way) and have instead become more diverse, reflecting the diversity in the population, so it is increasingly necessary to take this aspect of governance seriously.

I read that the role of the committee is to act as a ‘boundary spanner’, what does this mean?

This is the 5th role that is sometimes added to the list of core duties of the committee and refers to the committee’s role in bridging the gap between the internal world of the organisation and the wider world beyond. Sometimes referred to as being an ambassador, or liaison role, or interpreted as a ‘resource locator’ – someone who uses their network of contacts to help the organisation get what it needs (‘resources’).

Doesn’t Governance mean being an expert in employment, legal issues, finance and so on?

No. It’s a common misconception – because management committees often find themselves dealing with the mechanics of the organisation – that they must be experts in these areas. Just as a bus driver does not need to be a mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, upholsterer etc. The driver is concerned with the journey and the destination; where you are going and how you will get there. That we spend so much time dealing with the mechanics is merely a reflection on the state of most peoples’ ‘vehicle’. Bear in mind the ‘AA man’ principle; you don’t need to be an expert – just know when to call one in and where to find one.

I’ve been given a list of duties that includes things like ‘Determine the mission’ and ‘guard the values’. What does it mean?

This is another area where language can cause confusion. In business circles (and now in larger charities and the public sector) the language of corporate strategic planning has been unquestioningly adopted. The assumption here is that these activities (“determine the mission” or “draw up a business plan” are ways of setting the direction of the organisation. In other words they are the tools that express what the organisation is intending to achieve. The problem arises when funders and others mistake the product for the intention i.e. they require you to have a business plan rather than require you to show that you have set the organisations direction (which you might or might not express in a business plan).

What about ‘Guard the Values’?

See 2 This can be another way of saying how will you achieve what you want to achieve within the norms and ethos of your own organisation.

The list I’ve been given has things like ‘act selflessly’ and ‘act with integrity’. Its not much of a guide to what to actually do. Can you help?

Arising from the ‘cash for questions’ scandal during the mid 1990s conservative government, there came a call for specific detailing of the qualities or principles that those in decision making positions should uphold. The Committee on Standards in Public Life was set up (the ‘Nolan Committee’ after Lord Nolan who initially chaired it) and duly came up with its ‘7 Principles of Public Life’.

1. Selflessness

2. Integrity

3. Objectivity

4. Accountability

5. Openness

6. Honesty

7. Leadership

Its important to bear in mind that these are supposed to be guiding ethical principles for those in public life. They have been adopted by many sectors including many in the voluntary sector, particularly larger charities. However, on their own they don’t really help define what your role is. In fact, it would be impossible for them to because these principles are supposed to apply to a wide variety of people in public life, from MPs to judges, all of whom are doing different jobs. The most common use for them is in a ‘code of conduct’ that committee members may be required to sign up to. These codes tend to be rather hard to enforce as the interpretation of the values is subjective. The idea behind them is that were you to blatantly breach the code your position on the committee would become untenable. There isn’t much evidence for their effectiveness unless you are in the public eye (such as MPs).

Next FAQ: Qualifications
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A Word About Words

This site is aimed at those who govern (control) small organisations - whether they are charities, companies, both or neither. Those who govern them may be called a variety of names. We have chosen to use mainly 'management committee' and occasionally 'committee member' or 'trustee'. more...
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