BLOG: Appraisals for trustees, the key to good governance?

The demise of Kid’s Company was the catalyst for persuading my colleagues on the Touchstone board that appraisals should be an essential element of good governance.

Touchstone has a competency based appraisal (PDR) system for employees, which involves 360-degree feedback for our managers (senior and team); we have won accolades for best HR practice and hold IIP Gold status. We are a great team of trustees with broad skills and knowledge base, who do not want to let the organisation down and who want to ensure that our governance matches the very high standards set by our managers. Over the last three years we have worked hard ensuring that governance arrangements are effective and are agreed, known and understood by all trustees and our senior management team.

As part of our focus on outstanding governance, I mooted the idea of appraisals two years ago, but it was a challenging proposal for some. Many trustees had no experience of appraisals and were understandably concerned about the process of actively seeking feedback on their performance. Whereas as a health professional I have grown up with NHS appraisal systems, recognising that feedback is an opportunity for people to reflect and learn.

The catastrophic downfall of Kids Company created a lack of trust by the general public about the way charities are run. When I attended a meeting of charity chairs to launch the Charity Commission’s booklet A Chair’s Compass, outlining standards and guidance for chairs, I realised that Touchstone could lead the way in good charity governance and accountability if we embraced appraisals.

Working with HR director Kathryn Hart, we agreed a small working party of trustees to discuss standards, process and outcomes for a board review system. This group comprised someone with audit experience, a finance specialist, a businessperson and myself (chair). We employed an HR consultant who already knew Touchstone as he had supported our Investors in People awards. He tidied up our discussions and proposed a framework for feedback that was applicable for all trustees, irrespective of their individual expertise.

This framework included the following broad categories: strategic perception, decision-making, analysis and use of information, communication, interaction with others and achievement of results.

In a pilot process the chair of the board and chairs of committees were the first to test out the system. We asked 4-6 people (other trustees, members of the senior management team and union reps) to provide feedback.

We have now agreed an independent internal system where two trustees will buddy up in order to support each other through the process and the learning points that may follow. A Touchstone administrator will anonymise the paperwork and individual trustees will collate the information themselves. We also encouraged individual trustees to self-assess against the standards and reflect on their own results.

The appraisal system will become the norm for all trustees and underpin how we govern. The induction pack for trustees is being rewritten to include an action plan and potential trustees will be able to view it online. We are recruiting for three new trustees and the appraisal process is written into their job descriptions.

We are looking forward now to using our newfound knowledge of ourselves - and our governance of Touchstone - so that we can help other boards ask the right questions - starting with themselves.

Julie Laxton is chair of the board of trustees of Leeds-based mental health charity Touchstone Support - number 8 in the Sunday Times Best 100 Not For Profit Organisations to Work For.

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