Resilience and reassurance: reflections on the first OSCR Covid-19 update webinar

The world around us has changed in a way that was inconceivable at the start of the year. The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, and the measures to suppress it, are having massive impacts on how charities operate, fundraise and deliver support. This is bringing about accelerated digital change within the sector, but in a way that still creates the connections and communities that it’s known for.

All parts of the charity sector are having to get used to the ‘new normal’ of operating online. OSCR, the Scottish Charity Regulator, has also adapted to the new environment. It recently hosted its first Zoom update, which had over 120 participants. 

The experience was interesting for a range of reasons; the nature of the content shared, how the format was used by participants, and more importantly what this might mean for the future. 

This webinar mainly focused on the governance aspects arising with online meetings, and the kind of reporting OSCR requires. 

Governance - online meetings

The move to hosting trustee meetings and annual general meetings online was a big discussion point in the chat function, as well as being the first topic covered. The chat function on Zoom was well used during the webinar, with contributors sharing various experiences of different platforms used for online meetings. One contributor noted that it was now much easier to schedule trustee meetings, since people were generally available at home to join a meeting, without the previous barrier of factoring in travel time, for example. Could this be a more inclusive way for trustees to meet, beyond the current crisis?

The key message from OSCR was the need for continued collective decision-making, and appropriate record-keeping of decisions made at online meetings. With physical meetings not possible at the current time, online (or perhaps audio) methods are the alternatives. Some charities will have modern governing documents which specifically enable virtual meetings. Some charities will have governing documents which are silent on the matter, and some may find it is precluded.

For trustees faced with an out-of-date governing document, the point was made that trustees need to consider the balance of risk here. Is the greater risk in meeting online and continuing to make decisions, even if the governing document doesn’t enable that format of meeting, with the consequence that a decision at such a meeting might later be challenged as invalid? Or is the bigger risk in not meeting at all, with decisions then delayed, and that delay is detrimental to the charity’s beneficiaries and ability to continue to operate? The weblinks at the end of this article signpost further information about online meetings and governance issues.

Reporting

OSCR acknowledged that some charities may find it difficult to submit annual returns in the timeframes which would have been expected in the past. It is aware that the red category of ‘late filing’ creates a certain impression when someone is looking at the online register of Scottish charities. It was noted that funders sometimes take that kind of information into account when reaching decisions. In the webinar, we heard that OSCR is looking at an online solution in relation to how late filing by a charity is presented and communicated on its website, which will be welcomed by many.

I look forward to a future time when we can get together in person at events, for the catching-up and conversations which are the social underpin to gatherings. Equally, joining a webinar means there is no travel time and no travel cost and it removes certain geographic barriers. I hope that OSCR continues to make use of webinars as part of the mix in how it operates into the future. 

Useful weblinks

https://thirdforcenews.org.uk/blogs/virtual-agms-for-third-sector-organisations

https://www.turcanconnell.com/media/constitutional-issues/covid-19/articles/2020/04/covid-19-charity-governance-what-to-do-about-meetings-and-agms/

Julie Hutchison, Charities Specialist, Aberdeen Standard Capital

Julie Hutchison, Charities Specialist, Aberdeen Standard Capital

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