Stronger charities through good leadership

Sandy MacDonaldFor Trustees Week, our Vice-Chair Sandy MacDonald reflects on the qualities a charity trustee might need.

I was asked last week if I'd be willing to write a blog for Trustees week. As with most occasions where I very quickly agree to write a blog I then spent a fair amount of time agonising about what I should actually say! I began by just jotting down a few thoughts on how I feel about being a trustee of a charity and the difference I hope to make. Then I found out that the theme of this year's Trustees Week is "Stronger Charities through good leadership" and my earlier jottings seemed to kind of fit so I wrote it up!

First, a bit about me. My day job is as Head of Sustainability at Standard Life. This means I aim to ensure that Standard Life - a FTSE 100 global investment business - takes a long-term view and operates its business as responsibly as possible. Most of my career has been spent in marketing and corporate communications roles, including internal communications, government relations and corporate social responsibility. Alongside this I've had a kind of parallel voluntary career for the past 15 years or so, including 5 years on the Board of Children 1st, where I'm currently Deputy Chair.

I feel these two aspects of my paid and voluntary careers have really complemented each other, and I've learned and grown along the way, built my skills and hopefully just generally become more useful as time has passed. It certainly hasn't all been easy. The period during which I've been involved has been one characterised by significant political and economic uncertainty. Children 1st is a charity that's been going for over 130 years and plays a huge role in Scotland as the voice of children and families who frequently don't have another strong voice representing them. Children who've sometimes suffered from the most appalling abuse, neglect or hardship. Or families who just need some support to deal with the circumstances they are in and understand the strengths they already have and how to make the most of them. I feel a huge sense of responsibility  to ensure the charity emerges from this difficult context in the best possible shape, surviving any risks and capitalising on any opportunities.

In order to put some structure around my thoughts on how, as a trustee, I feel we play our part to help build a stronger charity through good leadership, I summarised my thoughts using four 'R's:


This is probably the first and most important thing to get right. You can't achieve anything on a Board without having the right relationships - within the Board, with the management team and with people who have a significant interest or influence on the charity, such as government or funders. For me, because of my professional background I also always try and keep a particular look-out for our fundraising and communications team, and Human Resources.
Building strong relationships, and taking time to help new trustees form them quickly, saves an awful lot of time and is the foundation that makes sure you can have quality discussions. And it means that on occasions when I am unavoidably busy with the day job, or in my home life, I trust my fellow trustees and can fall back on the strength of the relationships we've established.


It's really important that trustees are clear in their responsibilities. There's a well defined regulatory responsibility in terms of strategy, finances and governance, but those are just words unless you've spent time talking about what this means in practice. At Children 1st we have a clearly defined role description for Board members and we also regularly review our scheme of delegation to ensure we're operating in the right space. And as well as the 'official' trustee responsibility, I think we have a responsibility to set the right tone, reflect on the broader context in Scotland, and operate at the right level. As one example, since I joined the Board at Children 1st, we've continuously improved most of the key performance measures we use to ensure we're discussing things at an appropriately strategic level and having the right conversations to help the management team do their job. Our responsibilities extend beyond Board meetings too. I'm always trying to think about how I can effectively champion the interests of Children 1st in my wider networks or meetings and on social media, and making sure I stay informed on issues that might affect us.

Remind yourself what you bring to the Board

This may be a more personal reflection than some of the others, but I find that I am at my best when I am mindful of how I can add most value and what I bring that others might not. What would they miss if I wasn't there? This can be those areas where I have particular expertise, insight or experience, or it can be about the role I have on the Board and the sub-committees I represent. As a team, you really need the IT guy to speak up when there's a an IT solution, or the Finance person to set you on the right track if you're misunderstanding how some technical charity accounting is impacting on that month's figures!

It can also be about values and personality types. Again, on a personal level, I feel we're really fortunate to have some superb trustees with really strong values on our Board and it's vital we maximise the benefit of that. For example, some of our trustees are especially skilled at ensuring we effectively think about things from the perspective of children and families and that it influences our decision-making. Others are good at making sure we always remember to appreciate and recognise managers and employees who present to the Board rather than just challenge them.


Finally, I think it's really important that you take time to reflect on success and remind yourself why you do what you do, especially as it's a voluntary role. At Children 1st, we do this through regular service visits and through beginning each Board meeting with a service presentations that helps bring to life the front-line impact the charity is having. 

We also take time each year to reflect on achievements. Last week was this year's annual Board away day and it was a real high for me. The need for our services in Scotland has seldom been higher, but neither has our determination to confront the challenges we face and create a better future for children and families in Scotland. Over the past few years we have enabled the organisation to invest in a new brand that can help us cut through in a visual, digital age, maintained vital services through effective financial management, resolved pension issues that many charities are still struggling with, had a smooth transition of Chief Executive and Chair and helped secure new funds through networks and innovation.

Last year, Children 1st helped nearly 8,000 children young people, parents and carers in Scotland. Inspired by our employees and the amazing stories we hear of how children and families have overcome their own challenges and emerged stronger, we can reflect on how the Board has played its small but important part in this and hopefully kept a gentle hand on the tiller. Our role is often at its best when it is unseen and unnoticed, but it's a real privilege to have this view of the organisation and to serve the charity and the communities of Scotland in the best way we can.


(A version of this article first appeared in Third Force News).