We look at what it takes to succeed as a trustee and why the charity sector needs new voices on trustee boards
Charity trustee boards have a diversity problem. According to research by the Charity Commission in 2017, 92% of charity trustees are white, older, and above average in terms of income and education.
At many charities, part of being a good trustee is the ability to bring a different background and experiences to the board. But what does a trustee actually do and could you become one?
There are a few words used frequently to describe what trustees do for their charities: oversight, control, responsibility, care. These all feel quite different and if you have not attended a board meeting or had much contact with trustees, you may wonder which of these descriptions make the most sense.
Trustees have some responsibilities that are set out in law and others that are defined in guidance from the government and sector bodies. They distill down to a few basic areas.
In law, trustees control charities. As a trustee, you have overall responsibility for the charity’s management, but can pass on the day-to-day running of the charity to employed members of staff. At most charities a trustee’s role will be to check the charity is being run the right way.
It is important to understand legal responsibilities, the role set out for trustees in the charity’s founding documents, and guidance from the charity commission or other sector organisations.
It is also vital to learn as much as you can about the vision, mission, and values of the charity.
Charities have clear reasons for existing. The change they are trying to make in the world is set out in their vision and mission. The strategies presented to trustees should clearly demonstrate how they link back to the charity’s purpose.
Trustees help to make sure that charities are doing what they are supposed to be doing. Their work should be helping them with their mission.
There will be a minimum number of trustees for each charity, so you will never be expected to oversee the charity alone.
It is important for trustees to work together to meet their responsibilities, but you may also be hired for your expertise in a particular area and contribute to projects using your knowledge.
As a trustee, ultimately, the buck stops with you. Much of your work will involve checking that the charity’s finance and management are being carried out responsibly.
That will mean keeping tabs on senior staff within the charity at trustee meetings to make sure everything is being done correctly.
It is really important that trustees explain what they are doing and why. It is equally important that trustees listen and hear feedback from staff, the people the charity supports and any other people who are important to the success of the charity.
One of the most important trustee tasks is keeping an eye on the money. Trustees make sure that charities are managing their money properly and spending it to meet the charity’s mission.
Anyone can become a trustee. You don’t have to be older or retired and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t been a trustee before.
If you see a trustee role that interests you, get in touch with the charity to ask questions. You can ask how many meetings there will be and how much time they expect the role to take.
The charity may also support you with training and should have a good onboarding process in place to help you learn the role.
If you get the role, you can also ask about mentoring and shadowing opportunities with one of the more experienced trustees on the board.
On their website, Reach Volunteering talks about trustees as “guardians of purpose”. Being a good trustee is about keeping the purpose of the charity in the front of your mind for every conversation you have and every decision you take as a trustee.
Malcolm John, Founder at Action for Trustee Racial Diversity, advises that, “a good trustee must be willing to contribute their time, skills and experience generously to the charity whilst fully respecting the boundaries between strategic governance and operational issues”.
Like any other role, becoming a good trustee may not happen straight away. You might need help and support from fellow trustees and training providers to be the best trustee you can be.
If you think you’ve got what it takes to become good – apply.