5 Practical Steps to make sure you don’t become the next headline story

Originally published on Memberwise.org.uk here.

As a member of the Institute of Directors, it has been painful to watch the unfolding story of their governance problems being played out in public over the past week. 

The daily revelations of claim and counter-claim, suspensions and resignations, demonstrate once again that even the biggest and most renowned organisations in our sector are not immune to the terrifying speed at which the results of poor governance decisions can catch up with them and wreck both reputations and credibility.

It would not be appropriate to talk about the various issues or rights and wrongs of this particular case and it is impossible to know what is happening (or has happened) behind closed doors.  However, as a governance specialist working with a wide range of organisations in this sector, I must admit to no particular surprise that even such a well-resourced and prominent organisation has found itself in spectacular difficulties.

Experience tells me that a significant number of membership organisations and associations have been far too lax in maintaining the rigour of their governance arrangements.  Small or seemingly innocent decisions can lead to a cumulative catastrophe. Some organisations sleepwalk into trouble and are surprised to find themselves there while others will knowingly take a chance that nothing bad will happen because it’s been OK up to now.

Unsurprisingly, my immediate and urgent advice is that all organisations should take 5 practical steps right now to ensure that you don’t become the next story in the news headlines.

  1. Ask yourselves how long it has been since you have undertaken a review of your governance arrangements. We have been advising for a long time that this should happen at least once every three years and, in 2017, the revised Charity Governance Code made the same recommendation.  If you have not carried out a review since 2014/2015 then you are overdue and need to begin immediately.
  2. Best practice governance affects everyone; staff, officers and volunteers, members. When you begin your review, ensure that you are totally inclusive in terms of who has the opportunity to put forward their views and opinions.  Transparency is a guiding virtue of an effective review.
  3. It is imperative to ensure that every individual, in every role, has a solid understanding of both their role and their responsibilities. This begins with implementing detailed role descriptors (job requirements and expectations plus person and skills specification) for all staff, officer and volunteer roles. There is more to be achieved here but this is the baseline for effectiveness.
  4. You must have a detailed strategy, short and/or medium term. This sets out what you will be doing, when and why.  Your accompanying business and operations plans describe how you can afford to do it and how it will be implemented.  Without a strategy, it is not uncommon for people to make it up as they go, doing what they think will help rather than what is required.  Be specific and you won’t have to go back and unravel the unwanted.
  5. Write it down – literally or otherwise. Construct precise and detailed processes and procedures and stick to them.  Make no assumptions about how something is done or who does it.  It is counter-productive for alternate versions of the same activity to happen depending on who is in the room at the time.  It also avoids duplication of activity, which can lead to inconsistency, and can be very wasteful on resources.

In other words, don’t be afraid of bringing your governance arrangements up to date.  Just tackle it head on.  If you need assistance, then reach out to a specialist outside your organisation.  An independent eye can be of real benefit in disrupting the status quo or convincing the ‘we don’t need to change’ brigade that the changes they fear will actually bring huge benefit to the organisation.