Our (Early) Retirement!

Please note that as of 30 April 2017 Holmes Consultancy Services (HCS) ceased trading. Mike and I are in the fortunate position of being able to retire early, so have decided to move on to the next – and no doubt exciting – phase of our lives.

We’d like to thank all the clients we’ve worked with over the past 25 years. Being part of their team, in either a computing or charity training/consultancy capacity, has been a real privilege.

We have derived great job satisfaction from knowing that we have, in some small way, helped our clients to make a real difference.

Wishing you all the best for the future.

Ruth & Mike Holmes


The Cat Herding Skills of an Effective Chair

The duties of a committee Chair are a hot topic in our household at the moment. I’ve recently become the Chair of trustees for a charity I set up in the autumn (the subject of another blog) and Mike, my husband, was appointed the Chair of governors for our local Catholic secondary school a few weeks ago.

The Chair’s role is a crucial one when you think that a two hour meeting with 12 committee members amounts to 24 hours, a whole day’s worth of time. There’s nothing like a poorly run, excessively long winded meeting to de-motivate committee members who are, after all, giving their time for free.

Really good Chairs make the tricky job of controlling a committee meeting look easy – but of course anyone who’s had that role knows it isn’t! Whilst a Chair needs to prepare in advance of the meeting, and ensure the realistically set agenda is achieved, a key and challenging responsibility is to manage the people side of the process; hence my reference to herding cats.

Committee meetings are one of the key ways in which the governing body of a charity or a school makes decisions and carries out its role, so it’s essential that meetings are effectively run, with committee members asking challenging questions about the organisation, entering into informed and at times lively debate and making decisions collectively.

There are common types of committee members, which you may well recognise within your own committees, who need assertive but diplomatic handling:

The talkative person who insists on going into too much detail and veers off on a favourite ‘hobby horse’ which is totally irrelevant. My favourite phrase when this happens is to butt in when they are drawing breath and say, “Thanks for that Fred, now moving on”.

The opposite extreme is the timid person who may be nervous about voicing their ideas. This can happen when it’s a service-user trustee in a room of high-powered, business people. Using the round robin technique, where each person has a brief amount of time to give their views, can be a good way of resolving this problem.

The argumentative committee member is the one who regularly disagrees with other’s opinions, although it can be useful to have vigorous debate with a devil’s advocate voicing an alternative viewpoint. This is usually the gist of what I say when I encounter this type of behaviour, and I thank the person for taking this stance as it requires others to explain and evidence their particular views. This is a good way of taking back control of the meeting, especially if discussions are getting heated, and potentially disarming the committee member. A brief summary of arguments for and against an issue can be useful at this point.

The inconsiderate committee member is the one who jumps in with their comments, without permission from the Chair, often interrupting the current speaker. Such a committee member may ask a question of a colleague, and then proceed to respond to this, engaging in a conversation, again without reference to the Chair. An interjection from the Chair at this point, reminding people to speak through the Chair, should help resolve this issue. An alternate strategy is to have a quiet word with the committee member at the break.

On the rare occasion that two committee members start arguing vociferously, making potentially personal remarks, then call a short comfort break to help diffuse the atmosphere. Speak to each culprit separately and explain this is unacceptable behaviour.

One way to reduce the likelihood of any of these situations occurring is for the Chair to remind trustees, in his/her introductory welcome, of the meeting etiquette or code of conduct ie keep comments brief and relevant; actively participate; speak through the Chair; respect other’s views; and refrain from making personal remarks.

A Chair should always look to develop his or her skills so it’s good practice to get into the habit of reflecting on your performance after each meeting. What went well and what could you have done better in terms of managing committee members? No matter how experienced you are a Chair, there are always improvements you can make. You could also ask an experienced committee member for their constructive feedback on how effectively they felt the meeting was run.

If you think your organisation’s Chair, or your committee, needs a refresher on how to conduct effective meetings, including the people management element, then just get in touch to talk about the training courses I can deliver on these topics. This could be delivered as a short taster session immediately before your committee meeting.

Getting New Charity Trustees up to Speed

So you’ve just appointed a new trustee – what happens next? Often I hear some horror stories on my governance training courses from trustees who are provided with no information upon taking up a trustee appointment. Conversely some trustees are bombarded with reams of policies and procedures!

A balance between the two is of course advisable. A potential trustee should have received information from the charity when first considering such a role, to help in deciding if this is an organisation they wish to give their time and energy to. A trustee role description and background on the charity eg annual report and accounts, publicity material, are all helpful at this initial stage, before a trustee is formally appointed.

Once a trustee has taken up their appointment there should be a set induction process to be followed to ensure they are given the required information in manageable chunks. A trustee induction pack should include the following:

  1. Glossary of key terms used by the charity – to help de-mystify acronyms
  2. List of current trustees along with a ‘thumbnail’ sketch of their background and experience – to be aware of what each trustee brings to the board
  3. Copy of the charity’s governing document – to ensure the trustee is clear on the purpose of the charity and its internal board procedures
  4. Minutes of the last five trustees meetings – to gain familiarity with the format and content of such meetings
  5. Dates, times and venue of trustee meetings for the forthcoming year – to help in planning attendance
  6. Current strategic and business plans for the charity – to be aware of the charity’s future goals and objectives
  7. If the charity employs staff, then an organisational chart showing the management structure along with the names and posts of senior staff – to provide information on key personnel they may wish to meet early on in their induction
  8. Key policies such as trustee conflict of interest, trustee code of conduct, financial controls and equality and diversity – to acquaint themselves with the charity’s policies and procedures.
  9. The Charity Commission publication (CC3) The Essential Trustee – gives a clear explanation of the roles and responsibilities of trustees. A revised version is now available to download from the Charity Commission website.

One charity of which I’m a trustee has produced a trustee handbook that contains a lot of the above information in an easy to read format.

However induction isn’t just about a folder/CD of policies and other documents. New trustees need opportunities to meet their colleagues informally, not just at a trustees meeting. Getting to know key staff and making visits to any projects, where they can make contact with service users or clients, will help give an insight into the charity and hopefully instil enthusiasm about what it aims to achieve.

An informal meeting fairly early on with the Chair and Treasurer will help gain an appreciation of the responsibilities of these honorary officer roles.

I know of several charities that have used the ‘buddying’ idea, where a more experienced trustee offers support to a new trustee. This isn’t always effective, often because the ‘buddy’ hasn’t been pro-active enough. Options might include meeting up informally perhaps a month after the new trustee’s appointment, once they’ve had time to read all the induction materials to see if they have any questions, as well as chatting with the new trustee before and after trustee meetings to clarify any issues.

Some charities have a probationary period for trustees and their appointment is only confirmed after this has been satisfactorily completed. One charity I worked with had had a bad experience when three new trustees joined the board and tried to take over! They subsequently instituted a six month probationary period before an appointment was finally approved.

Even if you don’t use this process, an informal meeting with the Chair three months into the new trustee’s tenure would be a useful opportunity to see how they are settling into the role, and to ensure they have an opportunity to voice any issues and ask questions.

If the trustee was asked to complete a skills audit as part of their recruitment process, then any training requirements could be addressed within the first six months of appointment.

Don’t forget to ask the new trustee for their views on the induction process. This is a useful way of getting feedback on what has worked well and how the process could be improved for future trustees.

An effective induction process should ensure new trustees have a solid understanding of both their role and the organisation so that they can become an active member of the board and make a valuable contribution to the work of the charity. They may even enjoy themselves!

If you would like support from Ruth on devising an induction process, implementing a skills audit or other issues around trustee development, then do get in touch.


A Camel or a Horse – the Role of an Advisory Committee

I often start my training courses on effective committee meetings with the picture of a camel. The old proverb a camel is a horse designed by committee can apply to any number of committee meetings both in the voluntary and other sectors, where there is confusion about the purpose of the committee.

Advisory committees are certainly a useful tool to share the work of the board of trustees, and are common in the areas of finance, HR and governance. As the name implies the committee is there to provide advice.

A key question to ask about any possible advisory committee is whether or not it has an ongoing role eg finance, or whether the job is a specific piece of work with an end date. If the latter then it could be better tackled by a task and finish group, which completes its purpose and is then disbanded. Task and finish groups might deal with trustee recruitment as and when required; a governance healthcheck; or an investigation into a possible merger with another charity.

As small charities grow there is a tendency to set up advisory committees in an adhoc way and it can be beneficial to review the role of committees to see whether they are still fulfilling their original purpose. An organisation chart showing the board of trustees, the interrelationship between the various committees and a summary of each committee’s purpose, can be a useful way of seeing this information in a visual format.

When setting up a new committee it’s Terms of Reference (ToR) are an essential document. Key questions to consider are:

Purpose – why should the committee exist? This is a summary statement to describe the overall purpose of the committee. A finance committee might say that its remit is to provide the board with financial oversight on all key aspects of the charity’s activities.

Powers – what are the powers of the committee ie can it make decisions independently? If its role is to put forward ideas and recommendations to the board of trustees, then it is helpful to include the term advisory in the committee’s title.

Responsibilities – what are the specific duties of the committee? These could be itemised in a similar way to the duties on a job description.

Membership – who should be members of the committee? If it is an advisory committee then it might be useful in addition to trustees, to appoint staff and volunteers as members where they have relevant knowledge. This can also help to foster a productive working relationship between trustees and staff/volunteers.

Appointment – how are members appointed to the committee? Often this can simply be by approval from the board of trustees. Do make sure potential members have agreed to be put forward for this role!

Quorum – how many members need to be present for it to be a valid meeting? This is not a legal requirement (unlike the quorum for a board of trustees which will be stated in the charity’s governing document) but it makes sense to have a quorum of no less than two or three members.

Frequency of meetings – how often should the committee meet? The responsibilities of the committee will help the members to decide the number of meetings required to carry out its work. Virtual meetings ie via video chat, may be an option rather than having an actual face to face meeting, especially if members are located in different geographical areas.

I’ve recently been involved in a review of a charity’s advisory committees, so do get in touch if this type of support would be useful to your charity.

Charity trustees’ fear of the ‘f’ word

I recently attended a charity AGM and as part of the Chair’s introduction to the charity’s annual report and accounts he said, ‘Of course, I don’t do finance’.

Frankly I was amazed that a Chair should not only admit to such a weakness but should announce it at a public gathering, as if it was something to be proud of!

From my training experience I have come across a number of charity trustees who admit to a lack of understanding about finance or a phobia about figures. However it is a collective obligation of the board of trustees to manage the charity’s resources (including money) responsibly; what the Charity Commission calls a ‘duty of prudence’. It cannot be left to the Treasurer!

The main purpose of financial information is to enable trustees to make sound, informed decisions about the activities of the charity, to ensure the charity isn’t over-committing its resources. Sadly there are several recent examples of the trustees of high profile charities failing to undertake this responsibility, resulting in the closure of charities that simply ran out of money.

Financial information needs to be:
Recent – trustees need figures that are up-to-date – information on the cash in the bank from three months ago is useless.
Relevant – trustees don’t need to know how many second class stamps were used last month, but they do need to know how much income is coming in against expenditure for the same period and what the money is being spent on.
Reliable – trustees have to be confident that the information supplied is complete and accurate.

Trustees require financial information for the past and the future. An income and expenditure budget for the forthcoming year should be produced, ideally before the start of that year. Then a monthly report of actual income and expenditure against the budgeted figures can be provided to trustees which highlights where the figures differ (known as variance).

In terms of the future an annual cashflow forecast showing income and expenditure by month can help trustees to see in advance peaks and troughs and the months where income is unlikely to cover expenditure. Decisions can then be taken in plenty of time about how this will be tackled.

So what about the trustees who ‘don’t do finance’ or have a phobia about figures? One way is to present summary information in a visual format. Colour pie charts and bar graphs can be a useful way of highlighting key changes in data and can make the variances more striking than the figures alone.

Any financial information in tabular form should be accompanied by a summary of the key points, as the figures themselves tell only part of the story. It’s the narrative that helps to explain why the figures have changed from the original projections which enable trustees to decide what actions they need to take as a result.

To go back to my opening comment I’d recommend training or development support for the Chair and indeed any other trustees who see finance as an area of weakness. An annual trustee performance review would have identified this as a development area for individual trustees, or in the case of some high profile charities that went into liquidation, for the whole board!

Further information on trustee financial responsibilities can be found in the Charity Commission publication ‘The essential trustee’ (CC3), which can be downloaded from their website.

The Value of Mentoring

I was in London a couple of weeks ago for a mentor/mentee matching day as part of the Institute of Fundraising  London mentoring scheme. I’ve been chosen to mentor a fundraiser from a small charity and we’ll be meeting up every four weeks or so over the next 12 months.

There are many definitions of the role of mentoring. I like this one from the National Mentoring Partnership. “Mentoring is a structured and trusting relationship that brings people together with caring individuals who offer guidance, support and encouragement aimed at developing the competence and character of the mentee.”

Mentoring requires a range of skills including coaching, training, facilitation as well as general interpersonal qualities such as active listening, empathy and shared understanding. Skills needed vary for each mentee and indeed each mentoring session. The overriding principle is that the mentee is in control of the relationship, setting the agenda which will help them ultimately achieve their development goals.

My experience of mentoring fundraising staff has shown the need for mentees to be able to discuss specific fundraising issues, particularly if they are employed as the sole fundraiser in a charity. I know from my own experience this can be an isolating role when other staff don’t really understand what fundraising is all about!

A key benefit for the mentee is an external perspective whether related to their job responsibilities or to broader issues such as work relationships with peers, line manager, volunteers or trustees.

Mentoring can also be an opportunity to explore personal issues, if the mentee wishes to do so, which may well be impacting both on work performance and their lives in general.

I’m really looking forward to this mentoring role and see it as a chance to offer ongoing guidance whilst learning about fundraising in a different type of charity. I mentored a fundraiser on a previous delivery of this scheme and found it a rewarding and fulfilling experience.

I’m also available to undertake mentoring on a paid basis, to fundraising staff as well as charity managers, so do get in touch if such external and impartial support would be beneficial.

Free places for charity trustee/company director training in Lincoln still available

I was in Spalding yesterday to deliver the first of two training sessions on the duties of trustees/directors and the company secretary of a charitable company. (See blog post for 2 June 2015 below.)

Participants represented a range of organisations and very positive feedback was provided on the content of the course and its relevance. All participants were keen to share model documents like the trustee/company director and chairperson role descriptions, as well as the trustee self-assessment form with other member of their board.

I’m delivering the course in Lincoln next week (Friday, 19 June) and there are still places available. For further details and to book a place see the training section of the Lincolnshire CVS website or call Kevin Edwards on 01205 365580.

Getting to grips with charity trustee and company director responsibilities

If your voluntary organisation is a charitable company do you understand the key duties of your charity trustees and company directors? If not, then you may be interested in the free training course I’m delivering later this month.

The course is being run for Lincolnshire CVS in conjunction with the Faculty of Secretaries and takes place in Spalding on Thursday, 11 June and in Lincoln on Friday, 19 June.

Topics covered will include: the types of legal structures for charitable companies; what is expected of charity trustees and company directors; the role of a company secretary and how to develop an effective board of trustees/directors.

The course is aimed at those who are new to these roles or wish to refresh their knowledge.
For further information and to book a place see the Lincolnshire CVS website and go to the training page.

To be or not to be a Charity Trustee

I’ve just been reading the April edition of the Charity Commission Newsletter (always worth checking over). One of the articles featured highlights the issue of people sitting on management committees who don’t realise they are a trustee.

It’s a situation I have encountered on several occasions with people attending my governance training courses. People are asked to join a committee to run a village hall, for example, and don’t realise this means they are actually a charity trustee with a number of key responsibilities under charity law.

Anyone invited to join a committee needs basic information in order to make an informed decision on whether or not to accept the role. If it’s a charity they aren’t currently involved with, then they need to know why it exists, who it helps and how. They also need to be clear on what the committee role involves (a brief description of the duties, including the legal responsibilities if this is a charity trustee role) and what the time commitment will be (how many meetings will be held each year). Background information should be supplied by the organisation eg copy of the governing document, annual report and accounts and general publicity material.

The Charity Commission has a range of useful and very readable downloadable guides on the duties and responsibilities of charity trustees. I would recommend ‘The Essential Trustee’ a guide which clearly sets out the responsibilities of charity trustees. Following consultation on a new draft of the publication, a revised version will be produced for the summer.

Our new website

Welcome to the new website for Holmes Consultancy Services; it’s been a long time coming.

You will notice we have updated our home page photo – Mike is now sporting the glasses he has been wearing for the past three years!

A key feature of the website is more detailed information about the services I offer in areas such as facilitation and mentoring, aspects of my work which I am looking to further develop.

A comprehensive list of topics on which I have delivered training courses is also included. I’m always happy to discuss training needs and to design new courses not mentioned on this list, if this is an area where I have the requisite knowledge and experience.

A new feature of the website is the option to subscribe to my blogs, which I’m aiming to write on a fortnightly basis. If you have ideas on blog topics then just get in touch.

Do let us know what you think about the new website. We welcome your comments.