Involvement in governance structures of third-sector entities: a public-benefit experience

Eva Vila Massanas

I firmly believe that everyone who has had the privilege of receiving an education and being in employment has an obligation to engage with and give something back to the society in which we live. Since my university days, I have volunteered with NGOs, always in the realm of childhood and women.

Just before the pandemic struck last year, and after more than 25 years’ professional experience, I wondered whether I was making the right contribution to society and, above all, whether I could do better. The landscape for most of the NGOs in Spain was already complex and the coronavirus, unfortunately, made things even worse. Inequalities and the numbers of persons receiving aid increased whilst available resources fell, although remarkable solidarity was shown too.

I also wondered whether my career, restricted to the business world, could contribute something or whether, as some critics say, we business executives with considerable management experience would make dreadful members of board of trustees and management committees because the entities involved are far more complex and ruled by different principles.

33% of foundations have boards with more than 15 members. All this complicates the board’s decision-taking and governance

My experience of the third sector was limited to volunteering so I decided I needed some training before taking a decision. For a thinking, managerial, executive person like me who had always worked in private-sector business, it was very important to find out how and what I could contribute, and how I could improve my professional understanding of an environment I was not very familiar with. This prompted me to take part in the Esade Alumni Foro de Gobernanza de entidades sociales about three aspects I regard as crucial:

  • To understand the role and responsibility of the governing structures of third-sector organisations, which are not the same as those of private companies, be able to discuss the differences between the business world and the third sector, and be aware of the importance of the deliberate, dialogue-based approach of this type of governing structure.
  • To understand the good governance policies of an NGO, their governing structures, board of trustees, management, advisory committee, and also their obligations and responsibilities.
  • And to review the factors in the organisation’s main processes: mission, outlook and values, strategic plan, budget, financial statements, funding, brand, reputation and communications between foundations and society, and follow-up and evaluation of social impact.

Whilst doing the training, being the thinking person I am, I researched associations involved in the social initiatives I was already supporting and which were redefining their strategy and might need someone like me to work with them.

I had the great fortune to discover Fundació Ared. They have been doing an excellent job for more than 25 years providing training for people at risk of social exclusion, mainly female ex-convicts, and helping them find employment. Fundació Ared believes in training, employment and production as cornerstones of personal and social development. You are warmly invited to visit and help us.

We have a sewing workshop where we can make your uniforms, face masks, sports bags, etc; a bakery where we make the best rolled wafers in the world; and we also provide catering services for private parties, offices and other events (which have unfortunately declined due to coronavirus). There are many ways of helping and you are sure to find the best way for you. Every contribution, every purchase helps someone find a job and enjoy the opportunities many of us had because we were more fortunate.

When we talk about boards of trustees some people imagine a group of retirees concerned about society but not always involved in the running of their foundation

But back to my story… At that time, Fundació Ared was starting a strategic plan and I was able to get involved. The board of trustees and management team could not have been more welcoming. I started working with them, a very interesting experience, whilst trying to help. Sure enough, I could not transfer my business management experience or pace directly to the third sector. Decisions, for example, involve far more consensus, because you have to think about how each one will affect the beneficiaries and the founding mission. This process enabled me to get involved in a marvellous project and get to know a very diverse, inclusive board of trustees. And after completing the plan, they invited me to join as trustee. This enabled us to get to know each other before rushing into a decision, which, as we all know, is not advisable in any relationship.

You may not know that, according to the Instituto de Análisis Estratégico de Fundaciones, there are more than 36,000 active trustees. In addition, 33% of foundations have boards with more than 15 members. All this complicates the board’s decision-taking and governance even more, as mentioned above.

When we talk about boards of trustees – forgive me if I exaggerate – some people imagine a group of retirees concerned about society but not always involved in the running of their foundation. On some occasions, excuse me again please because this is often not the case – they are quite detached from the foundation’s reality and its problems related to fundraising and management and also the problems of beneficiaries, who continue to increase in number and want to help, but are not always able to … Besides which, their timetables are never flexible, or are so flexible that there is no room left for a personal life.

This was obviously not my experience, quite the opposite. So, I am trying to convince you to consider whether you are willing and able to contribute to the third sector from within the governance structure of an NGO.

At the present time, our society, our companies and also our third sector are being redefined. Sources of funding will change, as you can imagine, and strategies must also be redefined in order to help build a society that is fairer and more egalitarian than ever. This also calls for these governance structures to be even more diverse and include people who not only want to contribute, but who have the skills, knowledge, network of contacts and means to do so. There is a need for trustees who are, above all, trustworthy, who believe in the founding purpose and are able to contribute to the most important areas at this time in each of them, be it digital transformation, communication, the creation of public-private alliances (a crucial subject that deserves another article) or social innovation.

In this way, we will all help create more robust, transparent and well-governed organizations that reinforce their founding aims, and, consequently, we will be able to live in a fairer and more egalitarian world.

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