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An introduction to governance

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Governance is the systems and processes concerned with ensuring the overall direction, effectiveness, supervision and accountability of an organisation.

Good governance ensures:

  • compliance with law and regulation
  • that an organisation is well run and efficient
  • that problems are identified early and dealt with appropriately
  • the preservation of the reputation and integrity of the sector
  • that charities make a difference and the objects of the charity are advanced 

If you are a trustee or member of the governing body you have specific responsibilities which you must carry out with the other members of the governing body, according to your constitution and relevant legislation. For that reason it is helpful to distinguish between governance and any other roles you and others may carry out.

Governing is about:

  • agreeing the purpose of the charity or non profit
  • agreeing broad strategies to carry out the charity or non-profit’s purpose effectively
  • accounting for the non-profit’s performance
  • ensuring it operates within the law.

Management is about implementing the strategies agreed by the board e.g. by detailed planning, putting procedures in place and by raising money. If you are not on the board you will be involved in management and implementation, either as a member of staff or as a volunteer.

In your role as a trustee or board member it is your duty (with colleagues) to make decisions about direction. When you are acting outside that role e.g. as a regular volunteer, it is not your place to decide the organisation’s direction.

The key priorities and challenges for the organisation and its board will depend on its stage of development. The Charity Commission’s publication  Milestones: Managing key events in the life of a charity, gives a good indication of what might lie ahead for you if you are a charity.

Governance in charities

Usually a charity is governed by a trustee board that takes overall responsibility for its work. Governance is a term used to describe the trustees’ role in:

  • Securing the long term direction of the charity (furthering its objects or purposes as set out in its governing document)
  • Ensuring that policies and activities achieve those objects
  • Ensuring the charity is run in a way that is legal, responsible and effective
  • Being accountable to those with an interest or 'stake' in the charity.

Good governance runs throughout a charity. The trustee board is responsible for good governance, but they rely on many different people to be able to govern well – staff and the chief executive in particular, volunteers, advisors and others with an interest or stake in the organisation (stakeholders).

Using the Charity Governance Code 

The Charity Governance Code is a practical tool to help charities and their trustees develop high standards of governance. The Code has its own website: 

The Code is not a legal or regulatory requirement. It draws upon, but is fundamentally different to, the Charity Commission’s guidance. Instead, the Code sets the principles and recommended practice for good governance and is deliberately aspirational: some elements of the Code will be a stretch for many charities to achieve. This is intentional: we want the Code to be a tool for continuous improvement towards the highest standards.

This Code has been developed by a steering group including NCVO and other charity representative bodies, with the help of over 200 charities, individuals and related organisations. 

Good Governance is targeted at chairs, chief executives and trustees. It brings together a range of popular NCVO publications, including the bestselling Good Governance: The chair's role and Good Governance: The chief executive's role.

Find out more about Good Governance

NCVO Consultancy: Governance and Trusteeship

NCVO consultancy offers our unique experience in volunteer research, sector policy and organisational support to optimise your governance processes and performance. As a leading source of guidance on charity governance we help organisations ensure they have governing bodies that are effective, accountable and equipped to handle change.

Find out more about NCVO consultancy

How-to guides around governance

How-tos are written by the users of this site; they can be anyone working within the charity sector. By sharing knowledge we can all support each other across the sector. We encourage other users to add to, edit and update existing how-tos as they see fit. Changes can also be undone.

We have a series of how-to guides on Governance.


NCVO is currently hosting an online eLearning course on the roles and duties of trustees. This interactive course lets you study at your own pace and can fit around your schedule and priorities.


Page last edited Oct 06, 2021

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