In volume 1 of this blog, I looked at the tension caused by the growing demands on medical research charities and their heightened financial vulnerability arising from the pandemic. I concluded that charity boards have the opportunity to construct a brighter future for themselves if they use this moment wisely. How might they do this?

Attitudes have changed, minds have been opened

This crisis has brought together all stakeholders in the health ecosystem, from research charities, regulators, governments, health professionals, academics, the life sciences industry and private citizens with one single objective – to beat the virus, not just here, but everywhere. Amazingly, things that seemed impossible have happened easily – academics, clinicians, companies and regulators who once might have refused to join forces are collaborating, letting go their need for recognition, confidentiality or competitive edge, they are now simply working together for the benefit of patients, present and future. New ideas such as the COVID virtual hospital developed by Doctors Andy Barlow and Matthew Knight at West Herts Hospitals could not have happened before this crisis – and now can be applied in dozens if not hundreds of clinical situations. Corporations, healthcare systems and patients are prepared to see things differently. Even my almost-80-year-old father is now a devotee of Zoom GP meetings, when previously anything less than a letter would have been unacceptable.

Outcomes beats ownership

People used to be able to say ‘no’ to change, to ‘veto’ simply because, in truth, they didn’t like it, often using the presumptive ‘I know what’s best for my patients’ objection. That’s simply not tolerated anymore. In fact, mindsets have shifted so much that, pleasingly, the very same people who rejected change no longer tolerate stagnation. The focus has changed from ownership – who should be credited – to outcomes for patients and if we can maintain that focus, we will move towards a better future.

Boards can learn and adapt in the same way

If we look at how boards work and how they might change over time we must recognise that boards have several roles.



  • Risk and Governance – compliance focused
  • Funding – based on observation and control
  • ‘Self appraisal’ – mechanistic, procedural and controlled with a level of deference; Board members did not challenge each other or the need for each other’s contribution
  • Research / partnering – tentative, centred around controlling risk and owning the territory
  • Operations – minimum involvement in operations
  • Communication – periodic, possibly annually and very carefully managed
  • Advisory – primarily, in my opinion, around charities, fundraising and HR issues; often boards were there to be seen and were hesitant about being too actively involved


During the crisis this changed very fast, everything went from control to reaction to management and then to active participation of boards.



  • Risk and Governance – active participation of boards
  • Funding – laser-like focus on how to prioritise and preserve in order to survive
  • ‘Self appraisal’ – more personal and introspective; we started to look at ourselves in a flatter, more critical mirror
  • Research / partnering – active; the output going, get something happening
  • Operations – all hands to the pump, more involved than ever before, more available via phone and Zoom
  •  Communication – immediate, digital, we make small groups and we are more honest and open with each other
  • Advisory – you will know now which of your board members are truly committed, it is important to recognise that


Many of these changes in attitude and action are very positive and can carry value in the years to come. We recognise now that black swans exist, we have just encountered one, and its effects are going to be long-lasting. So we need to make the most of what we have learnt. The pandemic has highlighted where we are lacking; in our understanding of our own company and others, in our networks, in digital communications, lobbying and partnering. New ways of working and virtual teams are the new norm; we need to shift away from classical ways of running organisations and follow the lead of those at the ”bow wave” of HR practice today. So how might boards function moving forward?


  • Risk and Governance – primarily around resilience
  • Funding – rethink how we apply it, where it is best spent and most of all, who we get it from
  • ‘Self appraisal’ – continuous, objective, about the benefit to your beneficiaries
  • Research / partnering – we have done it, just keep doing it – global, open, outward focused
  • Operations – everything will change; more virtual, more engaged and much more informed from the top to the bottom of the organisation and in both directions
  • Communication – continuous, more honest, and much more respectful of the contribution from everyone in the organisation
  • Advisory – the gaps in our knowledge have been highlighted and it remains to be seen if we will take these learnings and progress

Evolve to survive

Boards must become more engaged; they must become more engaging and they must become more diverse. By diversity, I mean the kind that ensures survival, because evolution is not about survival of the fittest, it’s about survival of those most suited to their environment. The landscape has changed irreversibly, so charities (and all organisations) need to evolve their boards today to face the future.

The crisis has taught us that resilience is key, and resilience lies in diversity. A monoculture can be efficient but when it is attacked by a pest nothing survives, so diversity of thinking, origin and approach is what we need to bring to our boards.


Right now, CEOs and Chairs have an opportunity to take a breath, lift their heads and look dispassionately at what has happened and what is likely to happen over the next two to five years. We should initiate open and honest conversations, looking at; what contributions board members have made, how they want to contribute moving forward, what they are capable of achieving in the future and how that aligns with organisational goals.

Many CEOs are having conversations with me about their thoughts on this and I am more than happy to have one with you too if you would like to explore possibilities.

Feel free to contact me by phone on +44 (0) 20 3818 8841 or on email at

Nick Stephens, Executive Chairman

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