Small groups matter. Their work is an essential part of the quality of life we enjoy. But, many small, voluntary groups and organisations are struggling as they try to come to grips with governance and charities regulation. In recent training sessions I have delivered I see how members of committees of small organisations can feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the jargon and the requirements involved in signing up to the Governance Code or the Charities Regulator.
Poor governance by some large, national charitable organisations in recent years has caused scandal and led to a loss of confidence by the public in their support for charities. The introduction of the governance code and the charities legislation in recent years is a good thing and will bring about better standards and transparency, which should restore public confidence and trust in the sector.
However, there is a question of scale here. There is a world of a difference between a small, voluntary group and a large, national organisation employing hundreds of people. It is my experience that both the governance code and the charities regulation are not accessible enough for such small groups. These groups need more support over time to understand and implement the new requirements.
At training and information sessions I find most groups don’t know the difference between the code and the legislation, and therefore don’t understand that one is voluntary and the other is obligatory (for most organisations). Groups can be surprised when they discover that they are now deemed to be a ‘charity’ as the meaning of the term has broadened under the Charities Act. The Wheel and the Governance Code organisations have done a lot in terms of promoting the take-up of the code, preparing resources and giving information talks. Previously, the Charities Regulator staff also gave presentations around the country, and they too provide helpful information on their website and by phone.
However, I re-state, there is a big difference between organisations with some level of staffing resource and small organisations run totally by local volunteers, and more needs to be done to help the small groups to understand and implement the new requirements and changes.
Is training enough? As a community trainer, I am sometimes invited to provide training on governance and related matters to community and voluntary groups, and participants are generally very appreciate of clarity and information on governance requirements. However, I am not sure that a day’s training or an evening workshop is enough for groups with little or no administrative resources; follow-through is important. On-line registration, up-loading annual reports and completion of templates are new and foreign notions for a lot of people who have been voluntary committee members for a long time.
As well as training and information, there is a need for on-going support and mentoring to assist groups as they attempt to implement the new requirements. While the focus is on the larger organisations there is no plan as to how to effectively support the small groups. Locally, there are initiatives to train and inform led by Partnership Companies, Volunteer Centres and PPNs, but this can be hit and miss, and lacks coordination.
I would guess the majority of groups within the broad community and voluntary sector in Ireland are small groups without staffing, and therefore governance requirements are an additional task to be taken on by committee members. There is a risk that volunteers will become discouraged by the requirements, this could be an unintended outcome from a necessary and worthwhile introduction of governance standards and compliance.
It might be worthwhile to develop an extended programme of supports for groups over a period of time, even as a pilot programme. Lessons could then be learned on how best to support small organisations on the ‘governance journey’
Community Trainer and Facilitator