Ethics and Governance

What charity trustees should be doing now

May 13, 2020

How can charity trustees continue to safeguard charities during this tumultuous period? Michael Wickham Moriarty gives us three top tips on how to safely guide your charity through these uncertain times.

The COVID-19 crisis has now been impacting Irish charities for at least two months. What should charity trustees be doing for their charities now and for the future?

Keep meeting, but be flexible

Board and committee meeting schedules may have been disrupted, or even paused, during the introduction of restrictions in March and April. This is entirely reasonably as management focused on facilitating remote working and core business continuity during the initial stages of the crisis. If meetings have been on hold, look to restart them now. All the governance functions of charity trustees are just as important during this crisis as they are during normal times.

Undoubtedly, the agendas and board calendars will need to shift to focus on business continuity, crisis management and other COVID-19 related risks. All meetings should be remote rather than in-person. They may take place at different times to facilitate either board or management. Some meetings for board and committees may be called at short notice as the charity responds to a rapidly changing situation. The papers prepared by management may be less polished and punctual as the executive team focuses on crisis response.

Going forward, charity trustees should continue to meet and focus on their core governance roles of strategic direction, oversight and risk management.

Think of all stakeholders

Given the serious impact of COVID-19, management may focus their energies and attention on specific stakeholders or critical areas. Charity trustees should ensure that all stakeholders are considered during the crisis. For example, the management team may be focused on serving and protecting their vulnerable beneficiaries without giving sufficient attention to staff welfare, including their own. In many charities, the funding and financial crises could take all the attention away from the critical work of the organisation. Institutional donors are a stakeholder that can dominate the attention of charities, but many of these funders are currently being flexible with their grants, allowing charities to focus on other stakeholders. Trustees should ensure due consideration is given to the needs of all stakeholders, as well as organisational sustainability.

Be a critical friend to management

Most charities are dealing with multiple complex risks with a high-level of uncertainty over the future operating context for funding, staff and beneficiaries. This level of uncertainty is likely to persist for the remainder of this year and beyond. Charity trustees must always balance their relationship with management between challenge and support. As a trustee, you may have access to networks, expertise and experience not available elsewhere within the charity. Use this information to test the assumptions that management use for their COVID-19 response plans. Examine the scenarios and decision points set out. This trustee perspective can really add value as you collaborate with management in agreeing how to chart your charity’s path through these unprecedented times. Good luck!

Michael Wickham Moriarty FCA is a Governor and Vice-President of the Rotunda Hospital, and he is the Director of Corporate Services of Trócaire.