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Governing with Purpose: How to lead a brilliant board – a guide for charity trustees

Brian Cavanagh’s insightful book, Governing with Purpose: How to lead a brilliant board – a guide for charity trustees, aims to give charity trustees a sense of direction and clarity about their role. Brian met with RARE Revolution to discuss some of the book’s themes

Brian Cavanagh

Balancing passion and professionalism in governance

In his 14 years of work as a consultant, Brian has helped CEOs and boards to develop excellence in leadership and purposefulness in governance. His role sees him draw upon his 30 years of experience on different boards, including five years as chair of NHS Lothian.

Over these three decades, Brian has been fascinated by the creative tension that arises when passionate board members are tasked with making professional decisions. When it works well, this tension can help boards to achieve remarkable things. But passion alone will not bring long-term success, Brian says.

“People are very dedicated, but a lot of their energy is misapplied: they get muddled about priorities and where their responsibilities sit.”

The fundamental problem is that boards do not always have sufficient understanding of what good governance looks like, Brian says. Essentially, “it is a stewardship role, to use an old-fashioned term, where you stand back to guide and direct the organisation”. So, boards need the right mindset, recognising that “everyone can’t be doing everything”. 

When boards and trustees don’t fully grasp what is required, trustees, at one extreme, may become “torpid and deferential”, allowing the chief executive to run the show. At the other extreme, they may micromanage, perceiving that as the clearest route to demonstrate they are making a tangible difference. 

Recruitment: the importance of trustees knowing their “why”

Once the board is clear on what it needs from its trustees, it should reflect critically on its recruitment process, so that is recruiting people who will enable the board to be the best it can be. Not those who will merely “support” the board’s mission.

The questions for interviewees should be searching ones, including questions about the person’s motivation and how they will measure their success at the end of their term. Brian recommends that the questions are shared with candidates before the interview. This will help them to give answers that are thoughtful rather than generic, helping the panel to differentiate effectively between candidates.

“You want quality people who are passionate about doing something. Not people who want to be on the board but are not too sure about why. You need to get beyond the stock answer of ‘giving something back’.”

People may join a board because of a passionate desire to make a difference; equally, they may join because they want to learn to lead, Brian explains. “Now, there’s nothing wrong with that: we all have ulterior and altruistic motives. But you want people who are signed up because of their passion for a rare disease to be visible.” 

It is important that inertia does not keep people on boards when their passion to be there has gone—or was never properly there. Therefore, fixed terms are a sensible measure, Brian says.

Clearly, Brian is a firm believer in honing the quality of the recruitment process, in respect of a clear person specification, intelligent questioning and the implementation of fixed terms. Using professional recruiters, perhaps on a pro bono basis, makes this much easier. This not only increases the quality of the people recruited onto the board, but it also means that the board is saved from making tough decisions. Through searching questions, recruiters can filter out people who may have the requisite passion but do not have the other qualities needed.

“You want people who are actually really, really wanting to get their teeth into things, even if it’s only for a short term of three or four years, or 18 months even, or a specific project.”

Hearts and minds: engaging the wider community

Potential board members certainly need to be clear on the “why” that drives them to join a particular board. Equally, organisations need to embrace the power of their own “why”—their lived experience that drives them to deliver for their community, day in day out. That power can, and should, be harnessed to engage people in the wider community, Brian suggests.

“You’ll be surprised to see how many people have a condition in their family, or experiences that have shaped their lives, and will be appreciative of your mission and want to contribute.”

People working in the private sector may be quite cynical about the CSR (corporate social responsibility) work they are currently doing. They are an untapped resource that charities can tap into, Brian says. Do so by approaching them with a specific ask, he suggests. Brian has seen at first-hand how this can bring tremendous reward—in the shape of resources, experience and networks of credible connections.

The critical role of ambassadors

Brian also emphasises the importance of people taking on the mantle of ambassador within small rare disease organisations. Ambassadors have a “critical role” he says in influencing money and power: they can get planners to understand the complexity of rare disease and the need for urgent action.

“You want curious people, you want well connected people, you want people that are passionate advocates. You can always learn procedures: you can’t learn passion.

“You don’t just want celebrities, but you want passionate advocates who are prepared to use their networks to knock down doors to get you a hearing. It’s far easier to have them doing that than somebody on a chief executive’s salary.

“My first priority would be to recruit people who can get the influencing going. Then you can almost backfill the governance and performance.”

The rear-view mirror or the windscreen?

These are just some of the fascinating themes Brian touched upon. Other topics included the idea of the “learning board”, external validation of boards, balancing day to day demands with governance, steering groups, the importance of early access programmes for rare disease organisations, the perils of over-competition between charities and how small organisations can amplify their voices. Some of these ideas, and others besides, can be read about in Brian’s book.

During the interview, Brian commented on the tendency for boards to “spend their time looking in their rear-view mirror rather than through their windscreens”, but Brian’s own vision is clear. It shines through our chat and through his book: those entrusted with leading a charity need to govern with passion and purpose. 

Brian’s book, Governing with Purpose: How to lead a brilliant board – a guide for charity trustees, is available in print and as an e-book from all e-book platforms.


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