Culture Sector Governance - Fit for Purpose or Fit for Change? NCVO Conference Oct 2010 - Extract

October 18, 2010 by Hilary Carty   Comments (0)

One of the challenges of organisations working in the arts and cultural sector is that we can sometimes work in a culture silo, not taking full advantage of the links with the wider voluntary sector.   A missed opportunity, I think, to share, learn and connect with sectors that legally, practically and ethically work in very similar ways to us.   


Whilst my basic response to the question leans more to the ‘fit for change’ side of things, my overarching point is that diversity and complexity must always be acknowledged.  One size does not fit all.  Good governance is vital.  But running a creative organisation also requires you to probe, take risks, extend and explore.  We, therefore, need models and approaches that allow organisations to ‘breathe’, to innovate, to refresh and to renew – as well as deliver accountability and fiscal responsibility.


In 2009 CLP commissioned a series of essays looking at the issues and challenges of governance and the overall finding was that


The charitable model in itself is not the source of conservatism or instability...  Rather the problems of governance ... stem from incongruent values, dysfunctional organisational culture, and incompatible personalities’[1]


i.e. - the structures are fit for purpose, but the mindsets are fit for change!


Devlin and Thorold found that the charitable model does not need to restrict the organisation operating creatively and accountably, even entrepreneurially.  What was more damaging was the incongruence in the operation of the Boards of Trustees, such as


·         Informal contracting – so the role of the Trustee is not clearly articulated at the outset and not under-pinned by induction and on-going good practice (and, whilst this is done with the best of intentions, it could lead to legal or compliance problems later on)


·         Micro-management on the part of Trustees – having a clear take on the supervisory role (and inhibiting the ‘experienced professionals’) but not fully engaging with the strategic role: that of driving forward long term visioning, planning and delivery


·         Having an imbalanced membership – often demonstrated in small organisations through a level of inexperience amongst Board members.  In larger organisations this was, conversely, evidenced by the representation of ‘experts’ from other sectors, who do not necessarily appreciate the values of the cultural organisation and who try to ‘eliminate’ rather than ‘manage’ risk;  not recognising the fact that ‘risk’, in a creative organisation, is the lifeblood of its existence. 


Should we consider paying Trustees?  For me, the central issue is about finding flexibility.  There will be some organisations for which payment of Trustees is not only counter-cultural, but counter–productive and an organisational misfit.  The key lies in an organisation creating a business model that is clear about its mission and its parameters – achieving the best structure for the job.  And in some instances, payment may well be appropriate and sustainable.


One note of caution.  When I call for flexibility, I certainly do not mean a ‘free-for-all’ – strong regulatory control based on principles rather than bureaucracy is important.  We’ve seen where the banking sector got with its loose regulation and the voluntary sector is not, I think, so well prized nationally and internationally that the government will apply some quantitative easing to save us from collapse and meltdown. 


I think it is also important that we acknowledge the potential impact of losing the public’s trust in the prudence of the system.  We are working with public resources and the ethical contract that underpins the good work delivered across the sector must be prized, protected and supported.

[1]  Devlin & Thorold, Could cultural organisations deliver better if they were not charities?