The Charity Governance Code at one year old

It has been a year since we, alongside our partners on the cross-sector steering group, published the Charity Governance Code.

Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun reviewing and improving your governance!

Since the Code’s launch, its website has received over 250,000 unique views, we have worked with over a hundred organisations supporting them to use the Code and have received lots of positive feedback from trustees on how it had helped them have difficult conversations on governance. Subsector organisations like the National Union of Students have now adapted the Code for their own context and the Code steering group has shared some templates to help organisations assess their progress.

Reflecting on all this work I think there are a few areas in which the Code is having a significant impact on governance.

Having the difficult conversation

This code is more prescriptive than any of the previous versions, particularly when it comes to what constitutes an effective board. In the recommended practice, it talks about investing in the development of a team, ensuring openness and trust but also a culture where it is OK for trustees to challenge one another and management. The Code is explicit about the benefits of external review, term limits for trustees and limiting board size.

I can’t tell you how many trustees, CEO or governance professionals I’ve spoken with who tell me how glad they are that this is captured as good practice, as it allows them to ‘have the conversation’ with the chair who has been around for 30 years, or the board who don’t think it’s worth investing in a governance review. Of course, the Code’s apply or explain concept is applied to all of its practice, and so where a board using the Code wishes to justify longer terms or a larger board size it does so having engaged in discussions with its eyes open.

There is lots more to be done in improving board effectiveness of course. The Taken on Trust research published last year showed that more than 70% of trustees rely on fellow board members for support and that only 12% of trustees say they have had formal training or induction. It is clear to me though that the Code is helping individuals shift the dial here.

Thinking differently about diversity

Secondly, I think the Code has encouraged organisations to think differently about what it means to be diverse and the value of difference. Crucially I get a sense, at least from the organisations I work with, that the conversation has moved well beyond the old adage: ‘well we tried advertising and didn’t get anywhere, so we asked our friend.’

Increasingly, boards are having much deeper and more thoughtful discussions focused on approaches to recruitment, adapting board practice and evaluation of gaps. Many undertake audits of skills and diversity, prioritising voices which are not heard in the board room and considering how roles are constructed, how the board meeting could be made more interesting and accessible to different groups and how they’d like to monitor and report on their own diversity.

A reminder of the value in values

The word ‘values’ is peppered across the Code, featuring heavily in the Leadership, Integrity and Openness and Accountability sections. This is no mistake, values are key to the good governance of a charity. If you think about so many of the higher profile challenges which we have faced as a sector – be they fundraising or safeguarding or senior staff pay – so many have come down to times where organisations or individuals have acted out of step with the expectations of the public and their own established organisational values.

For many of the organisations I work with, the Code has acted as a prompt to review values statements, to waive and codify them into all areas of their systems and processes. Considering how procurement frameworks, staff appraisal and recruitment processes and board behaviours and codes of conduct all involve and reflect organisational values.

The Code steering group has achieved a lot in the last year, to publish and promote the use of the Code has been a big task on a limited budget and our voluntary chair Rosie Chapman deserves significant credit for all that’s been achieved. Credit should also be given to all the early adopters of the Code who have used its as a framework to have those difficult conversations, to champion diversity on their board and to strengthen how values are used in their charities.

These are just my reflections but a group of senior managers from the sector taking part in our leadership programme have also put together their own thoughts on the Code and its value.

Plans for the future

Governance remains a top priority for charities, and the Code steering group have ambitious plans to reach beyond those charities who have engaged in the Code in year one. To use networks to connect with trustees who probably have not heard about the framework, to evidence the value of using the framework, to create case studies which celebrate application of the practice and to work with professional service firms to equip them for applying the Code.

The steering group are currently seeking funding for this work and have welcomed donations from anyone who has found the Code useful.

At NCVO we are also looking at developing guidance for micro- or volunteer-run charities in using the Code, reviewing our Knowhow Nonprofit tools and developing a diagnostic tool.

For more regular governance updates follow me @mynameisdanfran or @NCVO on Twitter.

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Dan is responsible for NCVO’s governance consultancy offer, focusing on governance reviews, board performance and trustee training. He joined NCVO from the National Union of Students (NUS) where, as a long standing consultant, he supported the organisational development of local students’ unions as charities.

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