Good governance is needed if charities are to achieve their goals and build a better society, writes Kate Guthrie
There are approximately 24,000 registered charities in Scotland, raising over £10 billion a year. Around 180,000 people act as charity trustees and many more as volunteers, paid staff, beneficiaries and supporters. Charities touch the lives of many thousands of people directly and indirectly and I believe our society is much improved as a result, but it is critical to our effectiveness and maintenance of public trust that those resources are managed appropriately. Good governance is central to achieving that.
Navigating a 24-hour news cycle, evolving regulation and a challenging economic environment can present a complex set of considerations for any charity, and having capable, committed trustees can go a long way towards steering a path through that landscape.
In essence, trustees hold legal responsibility for the charity; for its property, finances and strategic direction, as well as having ultimate accountability for staff and volunteers. Like everyone in the charity sector, trustees give their time, expertise and knowledge in the hope they are making a positive impact on people’s lives, which in turn often has a positive bearing on their own lives.
My involvement with Action for Children began in October 2014 when I joined the Country Committee for Scotland as a co-opted member. Shortly after, I was appointed Chair of the committee, becoming a trustee of the main board.
From the outset, we have worked to ensure our governance framework is aligned to the work of frontline staff. Yes, we need to meet our legal, regulatory and financial obligations, but we have to do so in a way that supports those working for, and benefiting from, our organisation.
As a trustee, that means keeping closely connected to the work that goes on day-to-day and ensuring there are good lines of communication between the board and the rest of the organisation.
Like all charities, our trustees and committee members are appointed for the skills and experience they bring. But perhaps unusually, we also involve children from our services in the selection process. This brings benefits to both parties, helping demystify the role of a trustee amongst the children and staff, and ensuring trustees are tuned in from the start on our collective purpose.
After that, a proportion of trustees’ time is always spent seeing first-hand the difference our services make. It is another important part of our governance framework, as those experiences stay with you and guide you in everything you do as a trustee.
One of the first places I visited was the Gilmerton Road service in Edinburgh. This short-breaks service supports children and young people with learning disabilities and associated challenging behaviour. There I saw staff create opportunities for disabled children and young people to have fun, gain independence, learn and develop, while at the same time providing their families with a break. This brought home the importance of the support we provide, and, in turn, the part I could play as a trustee in supporting this work.
Perhaps the most inspiring story I’ve observed in my time as chair involves a young lady by the name of Gina Thom. In 2013 Gina was referred to the Transitions Employability Service, supporting youngsters who have been helped in the community to overcome social and personal barriers so they might secure a job. Three years later, she was recognised at our Woman of Influence Awards with the Community Award in recognition of the countless hurdles she has overcome to achieve a life of promise. Now, this young woman is called on to speak to Scottish Government ministers and other organisations about the benefits Action for Children have afforded her.
From young people who have been homeless, to those previously involved in offending and now helping turn around the lives of others, seeing those journeys in young people is more inspiring than I could ever have imagined. They remain the driving force behind every decision or action we take as a board.
We are extremely fortunate to have hardworking, experienced people as trustees, and instilling good governance throughout the organisation is just one of the ways in which we can contribute to its overall success.
That is certainly true of my experience. It is an honour to be the chair of Action for Children’s Scotland Committee, and it is a role made so much easier by virtue of being surrounded by such dedicated and passionate people.
• Kate Guthrie is chair of Action for Children’s Scotland Committee