Ten things I have learnt as a trustee

I’ve been (or still am) a trustee of six charities over the last decade, so for Trustees’ Week I thought it might be an interesting conversation to share the things that I’ve learnt. This list is neither exhaustive nor expert (I feel like I need one of those financial advice disclaimers at this point…), but here goes.

I have learnt that…

1. Good board papers matter

You’re responsible for the strategic direction of the organisation. You need good information to make the best decisions you can. Board papers – or other formats – need to include the info you need and leave out what you don’t need.

2. Board papers don’t read themselves


3. The role is about strategy, not management

I’ve occasionally had to stop myself – or had to be stopped – from getting involved in the detail of how to take forward strategy. But I’ve got my hands dirty when asked.

4. I feel really proud to be a trustee

I get a huge amount of satisfaction from it. Which makes me wonder why organisations struggle to recruit trustees.

5. Trustees don’t look at the finances enough

That’s not because anything was ever being hidden, I think it’s because spreadsheets are hard to read. Maybe some people don’t like asking. I’ve learnt to ask stupid questions.

6. I’ve never worked out how long to stay on a board for

I hope I’ll know when I’ve reached my sell-by date.

7. Boards need to make decisions

They sometimes don’t. I’ve learnt that doing nothing is just as risky as doing something. So, helping the Chair to bring the board to agreement is more important than dying in a ditch over your preferred wording of the new vision statement.

8. I’ve learnt more about strategy and vision from being a trustee than I’ve learnt from any training course

This has made me more effective in my paid job. In fact, it’s helped me an awful lot in terms of taking on management responsibilities.

9. Board meetings can be dull

You can of course change this. A good start is to have the meaty discussions about issues or strategy at the start of the  meeting.

10. Getting to know your fellow board members is incredibly important

You might only see them four times a year. Which isn’t enough to work as a team. Just as importantly, I’ve made many, many fantastic friends of fellow board members.

So, over to you…


Images courtesy of the British Cartoon Archive

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy and Volunteering, leads NCVO's volunteering, policy, research and campaigning work in the UK and internationally. With lead responsibility for shaping the external environment for the voluntary sector, he blogs about the big issues facing voluntary organisations.

5 Responses to Ten things I have learnt as a trustee

  1. Karl Wilding Karl Wilding says:

    Here’s some replies I’ve had via Twitter:

    @NCVO @karlwilding great top 10 things learned as a trustee. Would add – don't be afraid to challenge. It's what you're there for.— Carole Claridge (@caroleclaridge) November 7, 2013

    @NCVO @karlwilding Thanks – some really useful tips, can relate to many incl the need to actually make decisions!— Jess Bond (@JessBond247) November 6, 2013

    @NCVO @karlwilding Good blog! – how about No11 – trusteeship is about much more than attending four meetings a year #trusteesweek— Chris Tatham (@c_tatham) November 6, 2013

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  4. Sara Woodley says:

    In order to be a really effective board you need to put in the groundwork – how your organisation works in practice and know the rest of the team – front-line staff and volunteers. Acknowledge the skills, knowledge and expertise of your staff and other volunteers – you can’t work in isolation if you want to be a successful organisation.

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