In recent years there has been growing concern about the ability of voluntary boards to govern public and voluntary organisations effectively. This has led to a burgeoning prescriptive literature that attempts to set out the responsibilities, roles and tasks of governing bodies. Yet there is often a large gap between these prescriptions and the reality of governance as revealed by empirical studies. This study aims to help reduce that gap by examining in detail the working of boards and the constraints and dilemmas they face. The research examines how boards select and develop board members, the relationship between boards and senior management or staff, and what boards contribute to their organisations. Based on these findings, the paper sets out some recommendations for improving the value of voluntary boards.