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Trustees in the time of COVID

This week is #TrusteesWeek.  This is an annual event to highlight the great work of trustees and the opportunities which exist for people from all walks of life to become a trustee and make a difference.  Go to the Trustee Week website and find out about free guides and planned events.

 In this year of unprecedented challenges for charities, we asked two of our trustees, Esther McConnell and Cathy Pharoah, to tell us about their experiences of being trustees of Barrow Cadbury Trust during the pandemic, what’s made a difference, what was difficult, and what might be round the corner. 

Esther McConnell

Esther is the great great granddaughter of Barrow and Geraldine Cadbury.  Esther became a Trustee in 2016. She currently works at the East European Resource Centre as the Deputy CEO. Previously, she worked at the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU) and volunteered with Stop the Traffik. She studied Global Migration at UCL with a focus on community responses to migration and change. 

“I don’t believe our risk register or strategy embraced the possibility of a pandemic or a national lockdown, though we had included the fallout by other means. Being a Trustee over the past eight or so months has meant grappling with this fast-changing and ever-complicating landscape – a landscape which has affected our charity, our people, and our partners.

Working with a grant-making charity often gives you a marvellous overview of the work and profile of a sector. From this viewpoint – it has been clear that COVID-19, the lockdown, and the associated economic fallout, have exacerbated existing inequalities and created new ones. Across our programmes there has been a whole lot of hardship and, at times, this has felt overwhelming. But there has also been a good amount of hope. Hope sprung, primarily, from the hard work and dynamism of our partners in all their different guises, and their staff.

But what of the finer details of governance operations? We have adapted ourselves to work remotely – with a simplified meeting structure and regular updates. We have missed speaking in person and sharing thoughts in that easy way we took for granted. But our staff have supported us to recreate a sharing environment by enabling small discussion groups within our agenda.

It has certainly been a very strange and disrupted year – but the consistency and steadfastness of  BCT staff and fellow Trustees has meant that being a trustee has felt like a calm and steady ship in the storm”.

Cathy Pharoah

Cathy Pharoah

 Cathy has been a non-family trustee since 2015.  She is Visiting Professor of Charity Funding and co-director of the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy at Cass Business School. She is an expert on voluntary sector funding, specialising in research on philanthropy. She is a founder of Voluntary Sector Review, and presents widely on giving and philanthropy.

“The pandemic has brought challenge, change, privilege and opportunity to trusteeship. In a future of continuing uncertainty, it will continue to do so. Looking back to the anxieties of March the Trust might breathe a sigh of relief. Operations have been moved successfully to online and home working, a substantial programme of emergency and other grant-making has been delivered in a timely way, finances are still afloat, thankfully few staff and trustees have suffered from COVID19 infection, and Zoomed Board meetings have been efficient. And Board and staff are all still allies and friends.

However, none of the effectiveness in responding to the impact of the pandemic can be taken for granted. In the case of the Trust, it has been – and will continue to be – underpinned by the principles and ‘capital’ of good charity governance already in place. This includes high standards of financial and risk monitoring and oversight, clarity and unity around the charity’s mission and purposes, efficient managerial processes, regular detailed Board reporting and an organisational culture of learning. We have been able to draw on a well-oiled machine to develop rapid-fire, flexible approaches to the fast-changing landscape of grantee and beneficiary need. CEO and Chair leadership in steering the organisation through change, and supporting staff through the personal and professional challenges of the pandemic, have been vital. Trustees have had a key role in recognising the need to work differently, and providing fit-for-purpose oversight to enable staff to get on with the job in a timely way.

Most importantly, however, and critical in holding all the initiatives together, are the strong relationships of trust between staff and board members. From the perspective of a Trustee, these build up over time, through face to face engagements in Trustee meetings, events and joint project visits, not to mention invaluable, informal opportunities to get to know staff and other Trustees better at social occasions. We have lost these to the pandemic, and they are sadly missed. In the process, however, it is important also to recognise that trustee boards and staff have been sharing new experiences and partnerships together around fighting the impact of the pandemic and responding to calls for greater equality and diversity in the sector. These are providing the new platforms on which to build future governance, and more effective programmes for social change.

Trustee Week website

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