Adopting the Charity Governance Code

Paul Ringer, deputy CEO of Spurgeons; Martyn Allen, technical director at Electrical Safety First; and Tracey Loftis, head of policy and public affairs at Arthritis Research UK were all attendees on NCVO’s Charity Leadership in the 2020s course.

Last month a felt-tip drawing by the artist Damien Hirst intriguingly titled ‘Charity – It Begins at Home’ failed to reach its guide price at auction. It was probably not indicative of the increasingly complex relationship that society has with charities after a steady stream of negative press over the past couple of years, but it is a reminder that a household name in itself can sometimes be insufficient to garner the desired level of public interest and support.

A year since the publication of the updated Charity Governance Code, and following a meeting of minds on the NCVO Charity Leadership in the 2020s programme earlier this year, we three senior managers, each from different parts of the charity world, examined its impact on our own organisations.

The view from the top

In order to understand how the Code has had an impact, we each interviewed a mix of senior leaders and trustees at our own charities asking about how useful they had found the Code in improving governance.

Each of us works for a charity ranked within the largest thousand UK charities, with annual incomes ranging between £5m–£40m across a range of activities, including research, campaigning, information, education, training, and service provision. So we need to caution that our findings are geared toward larger organisations.

Each of our three charities worked in accordance with the code on the ‘apply or explain’ basis. Good governance was seen by those we spoke to as integral to a well-run charity within our organisations. The main difference people we spoke to felt the code made was to trigger good conversations; and because of the breadth of the code, it enabled focused, frank discussions on items such as leadership, risk and diversity, and avoided mission creep.

For those with less experience the Code is a good prompt and for those with experience it can be a helpful reminder.

– charity leader about the Code of Governance.

Another key reflection from our work is that for the Charity Governance Code to really come alive, it needs leadership from charities. The Code set the tone, but trustees and charity leaders need awareness of it, alongside its recommendations and implications for practice and behaviours. Such behaviours include navigating an extensive list of practice recommendations and identifying areas of first focus.

Although NCVO and others have lots of guidance on improving governance this doesn’t have the same profile as commission guidance. Our research gave us a sense that there is increasing thirst for support with going from good to great governance.

Adapting to a changing sector

The charity sector isn’t static and constantly explores new ways of running its activities, such as using artificial intelligence technology to reach and support more people quicker. As charities explore new activities, best practice governance is being sought from other sectors in the charity world and beyond. Hence, we believe the Charity Commission should consider the changing breadth and ambition of the sector in any future iteration of the Code.

Charities are moving into new areas of activity, and therefore may need to seek out best practice from the private sector, so that they can learn from others.

– charity leader speaking about the code of governance.

Whatever shape, size and form a charity takes, in order to facilitate acts of kindness and benevolence for the common good, the importance of keeping your house in order – and in some cases rebuilding trust – remains constant. While no great work of art, the Charity Governance Code provides a means to achieve it, albeit by painting by numbers.

Three top tips

  • The Code is a useful prompt for kicking off charity governance conversations.
  • The Code is comprehensive so it’s worth identifying and prioritising where to focus.
  • Organisations such as NCVO have useful supplementary resources to help.


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