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Trust and Trustees: The role of Boards in encouraging reflective approaches to evaluation

Photograph of Jen Wallace by Andrew O’Brien 

This February 2019 blog was written by Jennifer Wallace, former ESS Convenor.

My outgoing CEO at Carnegie UK Trust, Martyn Evans, has a saying: “A key role of an effective board is to provide both certainty and celebration”. He means certainty over strategic direction and celebration around the achievements of staff up and down a successful organisation.

There is a silent ‘c’ in Martyn’s analysis. Celebration is only meaningful when it has integrity. An effective Board therefore provides challenge. Holding the executive and staff to account. In my experience on both sides of this equation this can be a difficult territory to manage. But taking a reflective approach to evaluation can help.

Such an approach differs from the commissioned reports that Boards may ask for or stakeholder and ‘customer’ surveys that are commonplace. A reflective approach provides a space for staff to provide a narrative account of their impact. A reflective team incorporates their learning from formal evaluations, self-assessments, user and stakeholder surveys and many other sources and triangulates them to look for key outcomes and impacts. The purpose is to build a credible and grounded story around impact that provides confidence to the Trustees that the desired outcomes are being achieved, or honest appraisals where they have not been.

The role of the Board here is not simply to hold to account but to reinforce a culture where continuous improvement is normal. And continuous improvement is only possible where there is a shared sense of what could be improved. At Carnegie UK Trust we talk a lot about ‘the pursuit of why’. Data can only take you so far, it can tell you what is happening. To find out why it is happening requires a social process of engaging in discussion and deliberation between Trustees and staff, and indeed wider. And to agree what to do next requires leadership. The evidence will rarely answer the questions it raises without reference to values, culture and relationships.

Successful and constructive challenge must be done in a context of mutual trust. And genuine trust cannot be successfully incorporated into Board-staff relationships without certainty and celebration – balance is essential.

It has been a privilege to be part of this process at ESS for the past six years. As you would expect the ESS team is exemplary in their own self-evaluation and reflection, which they carry out with both honesty and humour. They are, I suspect, exactly the group of people that Andrew Carnegie had in mind when he reflected there is little success where there is little laughter.  I will miss being part of that team but will enjoy playing a part in the wider family of ESS alumni… and I take with me what they have taught me about the importance of trust, when it comes to being a Trustee.

Jennifer is currently a Trustee with Barony Housing Association and was previously Convenor at ESS. Her ‘day job’ is working as part of senior management at Carnegie UK Trust.