Survival Guide: Your First Trustee Meeting

Survival Guide: Your First Trustee Meeting

You’ve just become a Trustee. Congrats!

But you’re also a little terrified. You might have done it before, or it might just be your first time. Either way - fear not. Like the Bear Grylls of Arts Governance, we’re here to help you survive that first meeting.

What am I meant to be doing?

  • You are there to both support and challenge the Executive Team. You are their advocate, their muse. Sometimes their fixer or therapist. They should feel supported, inspired, energised by you. Validate and support their ideas and decisions where appropriate. But also challenge, in a constructive way. Help them see possible pitfalls and find better alternatives, help them find wisdom.

  • You are there to enable, not to do. You are a non-executive. You are meant to support them to get things done, rather than taking on operational tasks yourself. You are there to advise and guide, to establish the right plan. Not to execute the plan. (Though you are there to assist with specific tasks or special projects).

  • You are there to be moral. You are the moral compass for the organisation. You help make sure the decisions made “in the room” are the best ones for your beneficiaries, artists, audiences…whoever you are constituted to serve.

  • You are there to take the long-view. Use your objectivity as a non-executive to take the long-view, helping the organisation to look ahead and make the best future-proof decisions for the charity itself.

What should I be looking out for?

For your first meeting, your primary mission is to learn:

  • Get a feel for the organisation, its personality, its strengths and weaknesses

  • Gauge the board. What are the dynamics? Who will you work with best & how?

  • Where are you going to be able to bring most value, long-term?

Your secondary mission is to contribute:

  • Your first meeting probably isn’t a platform for knowledge sharing (unless invited to). You don’t need to justify your presence - just be in the room, rather than leading the room.

  • Ask excellent questions. Good ones, not lots.

How can I prepare?

1) Read all the stuff (before the meeting!)

You can’t contribute wisdom if you don’t know what’s going on. You should read (at least):

  • The organisation’s constitution and business plan

  • The circulated board papers

  • The organisation’s website

2) Talk to the Chief Executive or Chair

Have an honest pre-meeting chat. Go over your main areas of excitement and nervousness. We’d suggest the following questions:

  • How will I be introduced?

  • What are you expecting me to contribute?

  • Are you expecting any difficult or particularly interesting points to arise?

  • Anything else I should read before the day?

3) Prepare your self-introduction

You should be introduced to the board. We’d suggest preparing a brief introduction to yourself:

  • Your current role

  • Why you want to join the organisation, what excites you

  • The main skills or experience you hope to bring

4) Practice excellent listening

An essential skill for the Trustee. We recommend spending some time reading this.

5) Ask one great question

It’s about quality over quantity. We can’t put it any better than this.

6) Take notes for later

You’re a Trustee outside the meetings too. What are you going to do outside the room to contribute? We’d suggest making notes on:

  • What did you understand best, and how do you make that understanding useful?

  • What did you appreciate about each of your fellow board members

  • Were there any points of discussion that felt unresolved?

  • What do you need to read up on?

  • Who do you need to build a relationship with?

What should I avoid?

  • Don’t hold court or lecture. You don’t yet have a sense what the room does and doesn’t know

  • If you don’t understand something crucial (e.g. the finances or artistic policy), don’t expect another Trustee to hold that responsibility for you - make sure you get to know - so ask!

  • Don’t wing it. If you don’t have time to read the papers in advance, you shouldn’t be there

  • Don’t be afraid. You belong here, you are brilliant, you can contribute. Enjoy it.  

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