Getting our words right. Trustees, governance, boards, committees. What terminology should we be using? And does it matter?

It’s the start of Trustees’ Week, and the start of our AboutGovernance blog. So I’m going back to basics – the words we use. When we say ‘governance’ what do we mean and what do people actually understand? And are you a ‘Trustee’? Or do you not know?

It’s clear when speaking to people involved with charities, voluntary groups and social enterprises that this terminology gets confusing. And outside the sector I’ve found it can be even less clear.

Many people attend ‘board meetings’ or ‘committees’, yet can be unclear as to whether they are a Charity Trustee (and ‘trustee’ normally refers to those wishing registered charities) or just a Committee Member. Or are they a ‘director’ too (if the charity is a company too)?

When the national press helps to shake trust in ‘Charities’ and ‘Trustees’ might it be a good idea to use the right words to help rebuild trust in our sector?

NCVO undertook research and discovered that the terminology – the words we used – does and can make a difference.

People prefer to hear about ‘the board of volunteers who run the charity’ rather than ‘trustees’ – a word that is poorly understood and which some actually had negative perceptions of. NCVO 2017

For a long time we at VANEL have used the generic term ‘Trustee’ to refer to anyone on the steering committee running a voluntary organisation – whether they are a Trustee of a charity, a committee member, a board member and director or some other designation. And similarly we use ‘Governance’ to refer to the act of leading and steering a voluntary, community, charitable or social sector organisation. And governance is separate from the operational business of ‘doing’ the chores and activities of the organisation. (The blurring of boundaries between Governance and Operational matters can be an issue in itself – a discussion for another time.)

So, generally you’ll find me continuing to use these Trustee and Governance terms generally. ‘Governance’ refers to practices that are general to the good running of organisations whether they are legal charities, CIO’s, CIC’s, or simply constituted voluntary or community groups. And Trustee is a convenient label to mean anyone who is responsible for the steering of their organisation in a strategic manner. So forgive me if I continue to use these terms.

In September 2017, NCVO published a guide, “Telling a Better Story about Charities” (read about it here or download as a .pdf here). You might want to use a lot of its advice in the way you talk about your own charity/organisation/committee/board/trustees.

Where I have a general conversation now I’ll be talking about ‘the board of volunteers who run the charity’ rather than Trustee. It emphasises the very important fact that Trustees are volunteers first and foremost. (I’m guessing in a funding application the single word ‘trustee’ will be used more than the eight words that the longer sentence takes, so the shorthand is going to be in use for a long while yet).

So what are you? What do you call yourself? What words does your board/committee use? Do you understand whether these terms have the right understanding, the right impact or connotations? Do your staff, volunteers, partners, funders, advocates, champions, beneficiaries understand these words? Do they even care?

Let’s remember that those people – you / us – are ‘volunteers that help to run the charity’. That’s perhaps the important message to learn and share.

So at the start of ‘Trustees’ Week’ and as I head to the NCVO Trustees Conference tomorrow it’s important that we’re clear who we’re talking about.

Karl Elliott, Development Manager, VANEL
Good Governance Champion (that’s an unofficial title I just gave myself).

AboutGovernance is the private, online discussion space for members of the VANEL Trustee Network. Daily articles cover all kinds of governance and trusteeship related topics. As part of Trustees’ Week I’ll be sharing this week’s articles on the main VANEL blog for everyone. After that – it’s back to members only I’m afraid.

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