Peter Bennett-Jones: every board should have legal expertise
BCKR recently welcomed Peter Bennett-Jones to share with us his board-life experience and, in his view, what attributes are needed make up an effective board.
Peter’s day job is, as he describes it, as a showbiz hack – an agent and programme maker.
However, his engagement with the not-for-profit world has been the most enjoyable and life affirming aspect of his career. He has used and adapted the contacts he has made, and their influence, to broader purposes. His experience has covered three main areas; the arts, education and international development.
The National Theatre – where he chaired its production board. NT Live was started to help pay artists more and to get theatre to a wider audience. But its popularity made it a huge commercial success story with revenues greater than £1m pa.
Peter did a short stint on the Oxford Playhouse board and on the RADA board. In both cases the business people and actors gave their boards a particular flavour. He has since joined the board of the Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse Theatres which had serious funding problems.
Funding is a common theme and continual challenge for all arts organisations, particularly since the decrease in Arts Council funding – even the NT’s public funding has reduced from around 38% to 15%, with no public funding at all going to regional theatres. Regional theatres are cash strapped and it is very hard to get corporate funding. The boards are often made up of people who have been there too long. There is often turbulence around succession, when the old guard are not sophisticated at handling over the baton.
Despite its great heritage, the Liverpool Everyman board needed more rigour. The need to devise a rescue plan attracted applications from high calibre individuals who wanted to join the board – having something specific to focus on can attract talent. The theatre has a stronger board now. It is often the case that when things are going wrong the board comes into its own.
There are also frequently problems around succession in arts organisations and lawyers can play a significant role in this area.
He was a governor at Rugby School for 6-7 years. Even there, funding was the theme. Peter ran the bursary scheme which raised £20m to fund bursaries for children who would benefit from boarding school but who otherwise wouldn’t have access to places. There was a very dynamic head at Rugby who persuaded McKinnsey to take the programme nationally under the brand SpringBoard Foundation.
The current debates in education, funding aside, are private versus state, the curriculum itself and the degree of intervention from the Secretary of State. Plus safeguarding. As within the International Development arena, safeguarding in education is a hot topic. The level of accountability and scrutiny in this area has, in Peter’s view, become disproportionate. Current heads are regularly hauled over the coals for actions 20 years ago.
The Charity Commission, which is responsible for overseeing 160,000+ charities, is not well-led, has poor staff, a lot of whom are watching their backs. This leads to reactive and intrusive challenge across the whole charity sector and that explains the over emphasis on safeguarding at the moment. Remember, as a trustee you have the same accountability as a director in a plc but with no financial reward, fewer resources to assist and a lot of finger pointing.
Comic Relief. Having been mates with the screenwriter Richard Curtis since the 70’s, together they decided to use Richard’s success and their resulting persuasive powers to ask the BBC to give them a platform to support relief. Comic Relief’s success was in infiltrating the international consciousness of a generation and bringing greater awareness of the problems. It was fascinating. The board was incredible, all working for a common purpose.
Blair, Brown and Cameron were very supportive of the charity over the years, but the culture has changed under the May government.
Save the Children. Having been the Chair, he stepped away earlier this. Oxfam, Help for Heroes, Kids Company and Save the Children are all going through it. These organisations need to work effectively but who do you get to people these boards when the finger pointing for politically correct themes is so prevalent? The need for strong leaders to get involved has never been greater – but this sits alongside an ever growing disincentive to undertake these roles due to the ever increasing scrutiny, accountability and misrepresentation you expose yourself too when sitting on a board such as these. It is often the beneficiaries of the charities, those whom the regulators and authorities think they are protecting by their actions, who ultimately suffer from clamp downs.
Mistakes are made and people do behave badly. Lessons need to be learned and organisations allowed to move on.
In his view a board should always have two skills represented:
- To have a legally qualified person. Having that sound legal training and advice around the board table. The lawyer will often come into play in a crisis. There are many issues where extremely sound and well articulated judgement is required. Lawyers can do this, in spades.
- HR expertise is also a much-needed skill set to have on your board.
Boards have a fundamental role in delivering charity objectives such as:
- Strategic planning
- Fire fighting
- Working with management
There is a delicate balance of relationship between the board and the management team. After being on the board of Comic Relief for 15 years, Peter did a short course at Harvard and they showed that on the whole, management manipulate 80% of the business of the board. As a member of the board you need to reverse that, and it is very hard to do. As a non-executive board member, you need to make sure you aren’t outwitted by the management.
BUT it is worthwhile! Sitting on these boards has been a hugely rewarding balancing act between commercial and public interest. You need to see things from the bottom up as well as top down.
On the whole they are an expensive undertaking for charities. Candidates do need to make sure they are on the radar of the few important players.
If you do take on a role you need to give your time willingly, so don’t bite off more than you can chew.
The balance is the reward:
- Getting under the carpet of UK social issues
- Engaging with other institutions in partnership
- Range of issues are very different from those you see in private practice
However, the environment for charities has changed. Now there are sections of press and government ready to criticise. There is an additional emphasis on governance and safeguarding as there is more awareness of the issues.
You can, as a lawyer, make a significant contribution.
Due diligence is key before you take on a role. Look at historic accounts, meet the Chief Executive and or Chair and current trustees, to get an understanding of issues being faced.
How do you go about getting a role on an arts board if you have no previous experience?
Demonstrate engagement. Just approach the organisation. These are volunteer jobs and you will be adding great value.