What do arts organisations need from their Trustees in times of crisis?

20 May 2020 | By Frances Campbell

In the wake of Covid-19, what do organisations need from trustees and what will they need?


In the face of a global pandemic, many arts organisations have gone into crisis mode for an emergency that we never thought we would be facing. Right now, Trustees are a vital component in guiding arts organisations through this difficult and unprecedented crisis. However, it is essential that we as Trustees are on the same page as the executive team in understanding the best ways to support your organisation, and most importantly, your beneficiaries, during this time. 

There are many things to think about right now, but what is the right way to act, and what behaviours should we as Trustees be wary of? 



In this new reality, now it is more important than ever that you advocate for your organisation, showing the public why what you do is important. This might be to secure much needed donations, in press and public statements, or in the new creative ways that your organisation is reaching out to people digitally in the face of public closures. But remember to stay on the same page as your charity, follow your organisations lock down stance, use the same language and follow advice of your team.  

Your role as a Trustee is still to provide big picture thinking, strategy and advice to your organisation. While charity staff may be in the thick of crisis management, it is important that Trustees can continue to provide an objective viewpoint. However, it is also important to think about the crisis in context. The whole industry is struggling right now and uncertainty rules. Trustees need to be aware of the challenging context the pandemic presents and to understand that there may be limitations to what can be done in this time. It will also be important to help the organisation stay on top of Arts Council guidelines and keep up to date on guidance provided as the situation progresses. 

Which leads on to another key behavior, Trustees must, more than ever, trust in each-other and the incredible staff working throughout your organisation. Staff are professionals in their field and, while Trustees can provide valuable input, it is so important to show that you trust and respect all staff members. This is not a situation many arts organisations will be prepared for, so let’s not spend time thinking about how we could have prepared better, but look forward and think about the amazing dedication and skills your team are showing during this difficult time. 


Your role as a Trustee is still to provide big picture thinking, strategy and advice to your organisation. While charity staff may be in the thick of crisis management, it is important that Trustees can continue to provide an objective viewpoint.


Don’t forget to ask questions, particularly the ‘silly’ ones and the ones that may seem a bit obvious. Board scrutiny is vital when big decisions may be happening fast due to crisis and further unexpected developments. NCVO have some excellent examples of questions Trustees should be asking, such as; “Can we refocus our efforts and activities to respond to Coronavirus?” and “How could we continue to operate our essential services in the event of isolation or staff absence?”  What arts organisations don’t need right now is Trustees holding back in fear of looking foolish – if something doesn’t look right, say, if you need clarification on something, ask, and if you think a decision isn’t the right way to go, speak up. You will only regret not asking later. 

Finally, and importantly, never forget the reason you are doing this and ultimately who benefits from the great work of your organisation. There are not only thousands of people who may lose jobs in the sector, but even more people that will miss out on enriching creative experiences and services that they need. Now is the time to show your dedication to these people. Make sure you are contactable, prepared for digital meetings and aware of how to login to new technologies with backups for when things go wrong. There was a reason you wanted to be a Trustee of your organisation, keep this at the front of your mind and use it to keep your Board, executive team, staff and volunteers motivated. 



Right now, future planning on the other side of the crisis may feel a long way off but it is important to remember that your organisation will continue to need your expertise and support after this is over. It is vital that you remember to take the time to think about what you can learn from this experience. Even though a global pandemic is unlikely to occur again during your time on the Board, there are many things that you can take away from the experience that can inform crisis management in the future. 

Working closely with your Board and executive team will provide you with many insights into how you work together, manage stress, and make difficult decisions. This is invaluable for strengthening your organisation and building a resilient culture moving forward. What your organisation doesn’t need is Trustees that are so keen to return to business as usual that they forget to take stock of lessons learned and miss opportunities to improve. 

We must also be mindful of skills audits following a crisis. It may have become apparent that your Board or executive team is missing some vital areas of knowledge, expertise and skills. While it may not be worth recruiting an expert in global pandemic management, you may need to consider whether there are any Board gaps that would be necessary to fill in rebuilding your charity in a tough post-crisis climate. 

We are living in unprecedented circumstances. Right now, it is more important than ever that Trustees continue to act in the best interests of their organisations. By thinking carefully about your behaviours, skills and what strengths you bring to your Board in difficult times, you can help see your arts organisation through this crisis. Your organisation needs you. 

To support Trustees at this time, Cause4 are running a Trusteeship in Crisis course on the 27th May 2020. For more information, and to book, click here.

Read the rest of Now, New & Next here.



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