Putting board effectiveness on your priority list

Seamus Gillen, Founder and Director of Value Alpha, an advisory firm focused on the links between governance and performance, explains why he believes sport and recreation boards operate differently to other sectors.


It could be argued that all boards operate under the same rules regardless of sector, and whether for-profit or not-for-profit. But in my view, the boards of sport and recreation organisations hold unique characteristics that separates their work, at least partly, from that of other boards. 

Exercising sound judgement and making good decisions is important for a sport and recreation board because the decisions that it makes have an impact on local communities and individuals. Learning how to be an effective director is therefore key and so is understanding how to contribute to a board’s overall effectiveness.   

The workshop: Improving board effectiveness, on 22 November 2017, will get you thinking about and understanding the most important features of being an effective director and board. It will discuss what is a good standard of board effectiveness and you will be given examples of where things have worked well and where they haven’t. 

I want to look a bit more closely at why I believe that sport and recreation boards have distinctive characteristics.   

  1. Sport and recreation has a big influence on the nation’s mood, arguably for the better. It touches our daily lives and affects our emotions more than any other sector or activity. Whether walking in a local park, participating at a high-performance level or watching your local football team – sport and recreation surrounds us;
  2. Being on a sport and recreation board places you in the middle of a community, and sometimes at the centre of national attention;
  3. Performance can play a big role in an individual’s experience of sport. Whether it is starting an activity for the first time, setting a personal goal or working towards winning medals, the emphasis can be about improving performance. And this philosophy needs to apply to each sport and recreation governing body. 

Things can go wrong in sport and recreation, just like any other sector. And when problems do appear, for the reasons mentioned above, issues of trust rise to the top.  

Serving on a sport and recreation board carries significant responsibilities. Historically boards in the sector have had an imbalanced number of ‘gifted amateurs’. What I mean by this is people passionate about their sport, but unaware of the qualities to be an effective director. 

Your organisation and others in the sector are attempting to address this imbalance. But, the appointment of professional directors can also lead to risks as they may not truly understand the culture and dynamics of the sport they are leading. 

Making sure that the right processes are in place to protect and take appropriate action when issues arise, is the responsibility of the board. The stories that have surfaced over the last year about bullying in sport are a good example of where, it seems, boards have not been up to the task of understanding their role.  

If governance is about stakeholder management, boards need to be effective –collectively and individually. They must be effective at managing different challenges, whether that is the pressures of delivering medals or helping to engage the inactive so that more people can lead an active lifestyle.  

For more information on the Sport and Recreation Alliance’s Governance Training Programme please contact Hayley Foster – hfoster@sportandrecreation.org.uk