As part of our Chairs in Conversation series, Marie McQuade sits down with Joanna Dyson, recently appointed Chair of SOFEA, to explore the difference between executive and non-executive roles, highlighting the importance of coaching, maintaining strong CEO/Chair relationships, understanding trustee roles, and the benefits of subcommittees.

What are the differences that you have found between your two chair roles?

I started in the first organisation that I chaired as a trustee. It was a small charity moving away from the founder’s leadership and so it was in a period of transformational change. The priority for me here was to get proper governance in place with a focus on long-term strategic planning and growth.

The second organisation is a well-established corporate foundation with highly experienced trustees, good governance, and a mature approach to how the board is run. But then, sometimes with established organisations, it’s appropriate to take a fresh look and change things around. I’ve since done a lot of work with them to introduce the theory of change, board surveys, identifying skills gaps, and making sure we have the right understanding of our beneficiaries.

How do you define the difference between an executive and non-executive role?

Trustees and Chairs are there to help the charity maximise its mission, not run the charity – you must understand the differences between being an executive and non-executive.

You need to fulfil your legal and statutory responsibilities and ensure the charity is run appropriately by supporting the executive team in making the right decisions to achieve the charity’s stated objectives.

When it comes to the operational running of the business, there is a CEO and a senior leadership team who do that.

As an individual, you can ensure that you don’t become operational by simply making a subtle change in your language. Instead of “I think you should do this”, you change your thinking to “Have you thought about doing this?”. It’s almost taking on that coaching mindset of non-directiveness, trust and enthusiastic support.

“A key way to achieve a successful relationship is by investing time and spending one-to-one time together outside of board meetings. It’s natural for leadership teams to want to deliver good news to the board, but the board needs an honest view of what’s going on if they are to be effective.”

How do you maintain good CEO/Chair relationships?

Your relationship with the CEO as chair is absolutely crucial.

A key way to achieve a successful relationship is by investing time and spending one-to-one time together outside of board meetings. It’s natural for leadership teams to want to deliver good news to the board, but the board needs an honest view of what’s going on if they are to be effective.

Spending time together outside of board meetings gives the CEO a platform to share problems with you and seek more informal advice on how they might best bring this to the board.

It’s also hugely worthwhile to find time to get to know some of the other people in the organisation. Some chairs and trustees volunteer for the cause outside of their board work, or if your trustees link to a particular function, it can be worthwhile to connect them with their functional counterparts on the executive team.

It’s important for the board to feel that they’re part of the wider team and for the leadership team to feel the board is part of their team.

What is important for all Chairs and Trustees to understand about their role?

All trustees should have a good understanding of the finances of a charity.

It’s also important to understand when they should make decisions and when it’s more appropriate to step back.

A decision-making delegation framework is a great tool that outlines which matters are for the board and what are matters that are down to the leadership team, which can also prevent  trustees from becoming too operational.

What are the benefits of subcommittees to a board?

Subcommittees add value by providing trustees with particular expertise to spend time outside of the board meetings to look at things in greater detail.

They must have clear terms of reference and be composed of a mixture of executives and board members to help clarify when they are making decisions and when they are proposing options to the main board.

What do you think is important to consider when encouraging candidates to apply for trustee and chair roles?

Charities must be representative of the communities that they serve and support. It’s not just about different faces around the table, it’s also about diversity of thought and experience. Having these questioning voices on the board around the table, in my experience, helps you come to a better quality, more robust decision.

Volunteering for a charity is a good route into trusteeship, as you gain a good understanding of on-the-ground challenges in the charity.

If you are passionate about an organisation, then apply to be a trustee – it’s great to have that energy around the table. Once you’ve been successfully appointed, there are lots of courses out there to help understand the role of a trustee.

What would you say to anyone who's considering becoming a chair or a trustee?

It’s highly fulfilling to help achieve the mission of a charity you believe in.

And you get to meet a huge range of highly-versed and skilled individuals, but on top of that, you will also gain skills and experiences that can help you succeed in your full-time day job.

Marie McQuade has a long history of working with charities to create impact. She has been recruiting board members for charities across the country since 2023.

You can get in touch with Marie via her LinkedIn profile or you can send her an email.