Leading a merger of 10 into 1: contributing collaborative working expertise

Alex Skailes is a Trustee of Community Action Suffolk and Director of Consulting & Professional Development at Cass Business School, Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

Alex became a Trustee in 2011, starting as Chair of Ipswich Community and Voluntary Services and going on to lead a merger of ten infrastructure organisations across Suffolk to form a county wide infrastructure organisation – Community Action Suffolk (CAS) which she chaired from its formation in 2012 to August 2016.

The role of CAS is to promote and support the voluntary sector in its work across Suffolk and to deliver quality infrastructure services to strengthen and champion voluntary and community action across the county.

In light of the theme of Trustees Week Alex Skailes writes about her time as a trustee; how to ensure effectiveness, the challenges and successes.

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Why did you become a trustee?

I was interested in learning more about my local area’s voluntary sector and to support this through using my financial career experience. It was the opportunity to be part of an organisation dedicated to improving the economic vitality, the health and wellbeing of my local community.

How do you make sure you are being effective or doing a good job – both individually and as a board?

I was fortunate enough to have studied for a Masters in Voluntary Sector Management at Cass Business School. This armed me with a wealth of knowledge in terms of sector best practice and also gave me insight into how to transition skills and behaviours successfully across sectors.

As a Board we are continually reinforcing that we have collective responsibility for the organisation’s performance. We reflect on how we need to improve and are conscious that as the County’s infrastructure organisation we should strive to be exemplar. We take time out each year to assess our direction.

We have a Trustee induction and training programme and on appointment Trustees are provided with a document which they have to sign, giving guidance on their duties, responsibilities and code of conduct. We offer the opportunity of a half day update each year for new and existing trustees to learn from the Senior Management Team and key operational budget holders.

What’s been the best thing about being a trustee so far?

The people; working with both staff and Trustees who are extremely committed to what they do. People are paramount.

Also learning how to apply key business principles but in the most pragmatic way as possible given the resources available and last but certainly not least, looking back at how far Community Action Suffolk has come since its formation.

What’s the hardest thing been?

Transforming ten organisations into one new and strengthened organisation on limited resources and with a Board of volunteers giving their time, set against a time of economic challenge and increasing demand for services. We haven’t got everything right first time.

Would you recommend it?

Absolutely! I have learnt so much during my time as a Trustee, in particular that one has to combine one’s head and heart to get the best results. One cannot take out the business brain as you enter the board room, charities are not businesses but they have to be run in a business like way. One’s passion for the cause has to be balanced with sound and objective judgement and frequently one has to take a very pragmatic approach to achieve results with limited resources.

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