Unblurring the lines – lessons in governance from the Rainbow Project

Duane Farrell, Chair of The Rainbow ProjectHow do you make best use of the skills and experience of Trustees, while still respecting the proper roles of Trustees and senior management? 

It’s a question that has underpinned The Rainbow Project’s development of its governance structures, in the context of a new strategy that focused us on being a change agent for clients, in wider society, and within the organisation itself.  We knew Trustees had a lot to offer. But we’d been working to clarify the Board’s and executive team’s respective contributions, and didn’t want to end up blurring those lines between strategy/governance on the one hand, and management/implementation on the other. Here is what we learned.

Board sub-groups work even in a smaller charity.

We’ve set up two, with three or four Trustees on each. They allow Trustees to spend more time on issues like strategic development and sustainability than is possible in Board meetings. One of the two groups is constantly looking ahead, at financial resilience, strategy, and fundraising plans; the other focuses on assurance, audit, keeping governance arrangements under review, and supporting the Board in ensuring statutory requirements—like our first annual Charity Commission NI return—are complied with and effectively scrutinised.  The groups are supported by lean administrative arrangements:  essential papers in a standard format, and summary minutes.

The sub-groups also co-ordinate the work of any temporary task and finish groups set up on issues like reviewing the strategy on counselling services or on volunteer involvement. We’ve found the groups give space to keep a focus on making things better, especially as Board meetings can too easily fill up with the matters of the day.

A key point is what terms of reference are developed (keeping the focus on strategy, and not getting into management issues) and what powers are delegated to these groups. Other than in one or two specific instances, we have kept them advisory so that important decisions come back to full Board.

A skills and representation audit of the Board helped us target Trustee recruitment. 

We were initially unsure whether advertising Trustee positions and inviting applications would put people off, but needn’t have worried: all our vacancies were filled after an exercise we advertised through CommunityNI and social media. ‘Conversations with a purpose’ let us level with prospective Trustees on the commitment required and discuss how their skills and experience fitted with the Board’s needs and priorities. The dialogue didn’t stop there; annual one-to-one sessions with me as Chair are actually where several important ideas started life. The next stage is the (admittedly slightly nerve-wracking) one of bringing the staff team into the assessment of Board effectiveness, which is happening the weekend after I write this.

Trustees can make a big contribution in an outward-facing way, reinforcing links with other organisations in the sector. 

Until relatively recently, the Boards of LGBT community organisations didn’t have any particular arrangements for meeting each other. With our partners we have together established a collaboration group with representation at Trustee and director / co-ordinator level, which has helped us agree ‘swimlanes’ for our organisations. A social evening at ten-pin bowling helped kick off the initiative. It is early days but we are seeing the value of the increased sharing and collaboration.

And Trustees can be a “free good” within the organisation. 

Ours have delivered workshops for fellow Board members and staff on outcomes-based accountability and risk management. But we couldn’t quite have foreseen how some of our team would require skills we forgot to mention on the audit form:  tripping the light fantastic for Rainbow’s “Strictly” fundraising event … !

 

Author: Duane Farrell

Duane Farrell is Chair of The Rainbow Project, which works to improve the physical, mental & emotional health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender people in Northern Ireland. Established in 1994, it has centres in Belfast and Foyle, and provides a wide range of services as well as advocating for policy and legislative change. In November 2016 the Project won the inaugural Good Governance Award sponsored by VSB in collaboration with CO3, Volunteer Now and the Developing Governance Group.

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