Why be a trustee?
There is a shortage of trustees, particularly from younger age and more diverse groups.NCVO'sreport cities a survey giving the reasons for becoming a trustee included:
- a desire to become more actively involved in the community (22%)
- the chance to do something to progress a cause (17%)
- more meaningful way to support a charity than donation (17%)
- the chance to develop skills (17%).
These reasons might be similar to the reasons for volunteering in general, but wanting to be a trustee is quite different because of the large responsibilities and liability. People might not realise all of this when they first apply for a role.
Watch this video of Cara Miller talking about being a trustee and her own experience of it. Make notes on what she says is involved and consider the benefits and challenges of the role.
A charity trustee is actually a really big responsibility an unfortunately I think far too often people go into it thinking it’s a lovely thing to do but without really understanding exactly what’s involved. Most charities actually limited companies and therefore by becoming a trustee you are a company director and you have to adhere to all of the legislation that involves. There is a duty of good care which means you have to apply yourself completely. Being a trustee would usually involve a lot of meeting attendance so you have they have to be very well prepared for those meetings and to make a contribution. If you have a particular skill or experience that you bring to the table you are expected to be able to provide that information and advice for the benefit of the other trustees. That said, whilst it is hard work is also rewarding and can be a lot of fun particularly if you are a trustee of a charity that you have a personal interest in. I am a trustee of ‘Healthy ambitions’ in Suffolk which is a charity that aims to improve the health of people in the county and also reduce the health inequalities that exist within the population. My job is as Chair of the charitable giving committee, so my role is to spend the money of the organisation on grants to help us achieve our aims and one of those last year was funding breakfast clubs in schools in areas of deprivation. So we would help ensure that children were starting the day with food in their tummy’s so they are able to concentrate and I got to go along to two or three of those breakfast clubs and get involved and it was really good fun! So you do get brilliant opportunities like that, that you wouldn’t otherwise. I also think for young people being a trustee is an excellent opportunity. There are not very many young trustees and young people can add a lot to a board that can sometimes get overlooked. It is also really good experience to get used to attending meetings and seeing how decisions are made and discussed at board level.
Cara highlights the issue that often people do not know what they are taking on. She says that being a trustee involves having a duty of care, complying with regulations, going to meetings and being well prepared; also that people need to be confident in sharing their skills and experience with the other trustees. She says that it can be a very rewarding experience and talks about how interesting she found seeing how the money was spent by her charity (which she did by setting up breakfast clubs). She also highlights how useful it would be if there were more young people as trustees: it would be good experience for them and the charities.
If you are interested in applying to be a trustee, you should ask yourself the following questions to reflect on whether you have the right aptitudes, skills and experience.
Box 1 Finding the right fit
- What are your motivations for wanting to be a trustee?
- Are you committed to the objects and values of the charity?
- On what level does the charity operate (international, national, local)?
- What does the charity do, for example campaigning, service delivery, policy, research?
- What will be expected from you?
- Is the charity financially sound?
- What is the size of the charity and what are its potential liabilities?
- What policies are in place to deal with risk?
- Who else is on the board? Can you meet them?
Imagine that you want to be a trustee (if you are already a trustee, reflect on what you thought about when you first applied). Write notes on the questions in Box 1 and reflect on which ones would be the most important for you personally.
Your answer will be personal to you, but your main motivations may be that you support a particular cause and feel passionate about the values of a particular charity. You might even volunteer for the charity already and feel ready to help with its governance. You might also want to increase your own skills and experience because you want to look for paid work in the voluntary sector in the future. Knowing more about the charity and about what is expected of you (how many meetings a year, how much reading/preparation is involved, whether expenses are paid) is very important. Looking in more detail at the finances and legal aspects would definitely be important. You could find out much of this by talking to existing trustees and also get a sense of whether you would be happy working with them.
Box 2 provides the example of Angela, who became a trustee and was able to use her existing professional skills and experience and apply them to a different context. When advertising for new trustees, organisations often specify particular areas they wish to recruit to: for example, fundraising, finance, managing change, partnership working or networking and so on. In addition to the relevant specialist skills and experience, the following would also be relevant: good communication skills, being able to reflect on your work, being willing to learn and ask questions, a good listener and skills in chairing meetings.
Box 2 Example of a trustee’s contribution
Angela Beagrie, Head of Compliance with NHS Stockport Clinical Commissioning Group, was delighted to see a volunteer opportunity posted on a social media site by Reach that was just what she was looking for. She was keen to use her professional skills to help a charity that needed those skills to succeed.
Via Reach – which promotes skills-based volunteering – Angela was appointed as a trustee for Independent Options, a charity providing a range of services to people with learning disabilities in Stockport, Trafford and sections of Greater Manchester.
Jim Grassick, chair of the charity’s board, says, ‘In Angela’s case, we were looking for someone who might help us in our dealings with local members of Parliament as we tried to publicise the plight of some of our users’ parents, who we feel are unjustly treated by the local authority. Not deliberately, but by accident as they are lumped together with everyone else. Angela brought this experience. She had worked as a Special Advisor in the political office in No. 10 Downing Street, advising on lobbying strategies.’
’However, Angela has brought a lot more to the charity. She has experience of writing company strategies. She is focused on turning information into actions.’
’It’s fantastic,’ Angela says of her appointment, ’I’d only been there a few months and already helped to write their strategic plan. I’m now working on a campaign to get the support of the local MPs for the issues affecting the families we work with.
’I didn’t realise so much was going on locally. There were so many opportunities and charities that need the skills you can offer.’
Reach (2016b) summarise the issues around eligibility, that is, who can become a trustee. Most people over 18 years of age can become trustees, except those who have already been disqualified as company directors and those who have been convicted of an offence involving dishonesty or deception.
Applying to be a trustee is similar to a job application: it may involve a letter of application, your CV and an interview.
As well as making a difference, being a trustee can provide considerable experience if you are interested in building a CV suited to working in the voluntary sector. However, trustees cannot go on to be employed by the organisation where they are a trustee.
You will finish this topic by thinking about what it is like to be a member of staff or a volunteer in an organisation where there is a threat to accountability and the impact on the organisation and its stakeholders.
Imagine you are working or volunteering in an organisation where the trustees do not seem to be in control of finances or strategy. Write down three things that would concern you, for example the impact on the organisation’s purpose, service users, staff, volunteers, wider support.
The main issue of course is the impact of poor governance on the service users and other beneficiaries. Other concerns could include: impact on the levels of donation and support from members of the public; poor publicity; volunteers or staff leaving and difficulties in recruitment; difficulty in getting contracts or grants; intervention by the charity regulator or legal issues. In terms of concerns about your own role, if the trustees asked you for information you might be unsure how much you should complain about the lack of direction. You might wonder whether you should ‘whistleblow’, going outside of the organisation to alert another authority about the situation.