4.1 The role of trustees

Trustees or members of the governing body play the key role of overseeing the organisation. They have specific responsibilities which they must carry out with the other members of the governing body, according to the organisation’s constitution and relevant legislation. All formal voluntary organisations have a ‘governing document’ which is called different things in different organisations, such as constitution, memorandum and articles of association, trust deed or rules. This document essentially contains the aims and rules of the organisation, lays out what the organisation will do and how it will do it, and illustrates how the organisation is democratic and accountable. If there are problems or questions about what the organisation has done, then it serves as a point of reference.

Governance relates to the systems and processes concerned with ensuring the overall direction, effectiveness, supervision and accountability of an organisation.

Good governance ensures that:

  • the law and regulations are complied with
  • an organisation is well run and efficient
  • problems are identified early and dealt with appropriately
  • the reputation and integrity of the sector are preserved
  • charities make a difference and the objects of the charity are advanced. 

Good governance involves:

  • agreeing the purpose of the charity
  • agreeing broad strategies to carry out the charity’s purpose effectively
  • accounting for the non-profit’s performance
  • ensuring it operates within the law.

Management, on the other hand, is about implementing the strategies agreed by the board, for example by detailed planning, putting procedures in place and raising money. Management and implementation is carried out by members of staff or volunteers. However, staff and volunteers may well contribute to governing and leading the organisation as well. There are inevitably exceptions, for example where trustees are also volunteers carrying out day-to-day duties in very small organisations; where the paid director of an organisation makes a substantial contribution to the strategic decision-making when meeting with the trustees; or where, in a very large charity where departments are devolved, they have considerable autonomy but this is usually still implementation and management rather than governing.

Who are trustees and what are their main responsibilities?