- Trustees have a duty to ensure that charities are well run, solvent, legally compliant, and working towards the charitable purpose for which they were established.
- Trusteeship is an important and a highly rewarding way to support an organisation.
Trustees are the people who are ultimately responsible for a charity’s actions and its direction and strategy. They have a duty to ensure that charities are well run, solvent, legally compliant, and working towards the charitable purpose for which they were established.
Estimates suggest that there are between 820,000 and one million trustee positions in the UK, but almost half (48%) of charities have at least one vacancy on their board1. Trusteeship is an important and a highly rewarding way to support an organisation.
Trustees form the governing board of an organisation and are sometimes known by other names, including directors, board members, governors and management committee members. With some limited restrictions, trustees give their time on a voluntary basis. The particular role of trustees is to maintain a strategic overview of the charity’s position and activities to ensure it responds to the needs of beneficiaries and continues to deliver on its mission.
Reasons to be a trustee
Many people see trusteeship as a valuable way to really understand and get involved in the organisations they have already chosen to support financially.
For individuals with valuable skills, it can be a high impact way of giving to a cause they have benefited from personally, or more generally to give back to society. Professional, legal and financial skills are highly valuable, but so too are marketing and social media skills, soft skills and relationship building, and representation of the views of beneficiaries.
For people early in their career, trusteeship is a great way to develop leadership skills, build their CV, and gain experience at board level. Charity trustees need to be involved in the charity’s budget and strategic direction, so trusteeship can enhance decision-making, project management and strategic thinking skills. For those later in their career, trusteeship provides an interest outside of work: a way to develop new expertise, meet interesting people, and apply skills to a new and challenging area.
Commitments of trusteeship
Trustees have mandatory responsibilities which include ensuring the charity complies with regulation, acts with integrity, avoids conflicts of interest, monitors risk and does not misuse funds. They also have optional responsibilities which include:
- helping the charity to follow good practice including setting the strategy;
- agreeing clear roles and responsibilities for trustees and the charity’s staff;
- supporting senior management;
- attending regular board and subcommittee meetings;
- taking the time to stay up-to-date with the charity’s work and the environment in which it operates; and
- reviewing board performance.
The trustee level of commitment required varies depending on the type of charity, but usually requires some dedication of time beyond attendance at meetings. Trustees of very small charities may find the organisation needs support on operational issues such as fundraising, management of staff and volunteers, administration of campaigns and so on. For the trustee the challenge is always to balance their support of operational demands with the need to step back and take a strategic view.
As the legal custodians of a charity, trustees have liability for ensuring that the organisation acts in accordance with its defined purposes and uses money appropriately to further these purposes. Trustees can have personal liability in situations where appropriate practices are not followed, however the charity commission is clear that the ‘conscientious and committed trustee need have few worries about personal liability’. Trustee liability is limited if the charity is incorporated (i.e. registered as a charitable company limited by guarantee), and trustees can be further protected through trustee liability insurance.
Finding a trustee vacancy
Many trustee appointments occur informally through individuals making a greater commitment to organisations they are already involved with, or finding out about available trustee positions through networks and contacts. In an Institute for Philanthropy survey of 100 UK charity chairs and chief executives in 2010, only 20% of respondents reported outside advertising as their primary means of recruitment.
A number of organisations advertise trustee vacancies, or match-make between charities and potential trustees. These organisations will do different levels of due diligence on the charities they feature, so it is important to spend some time researching the charity yourself. Before committing to a trustee position, make sure you understand:
- the charity’s financial position;
- the responsibilities and duties that they expect of you;
- how the charity engages with and supports its trustees; and
- the risks the charity faces.
It is important to find a charity which closely matches your interests, where the board is fit for purpose, and which overall you have confidence in.
1 The benefits of trusteeship, New Philanthropy Capital (2012)