Trusteeship – learning and liability

Mike Locke was the Head of Volunteering and Development at NCVO and left in July 2014. He blogged about issues with the practice, organisation and development of volunteering. His posts have been archived here.

We’re celebrating trusteeship this week – and we should celebrate well. We depend on people taking on this role as the key stone of charity. It’s the role that provides the legal framework through which we can work for our causes.

And it is – or perhaps, can be – a great experience being a trustee. You can learn a lot, as well as give of your experience.

I wouldn’t be doing this job today, if I hadn’t, early on, been a trustee. I learnt how to work in and through voluntary organisations. I had an outlet for my politics, and it was terrific to be taken seriously. I found a sense of belonging in my local community, and I re-focussed my paid employment.

But I think it helps to face up to what an odd role it is to be a trustee. How in many ways it is counter-intuitive, how it runs against everyday assumptions about the way our society, our democracy and our law work.

Broadly, a trustee’s role is not to do things but to see they are done and to take responsibility for them.

At the core of this is the distinction between governing and managing. You frame strategy and review progress, but you stay out of the ongoing work.

You hold to account managers and professionals who usually know more about the job than you do.

You may see this as a political or democratic task. You may feel you represent a community or constituency, but your duty is to the charity and its beneficiaries.

A trustee’s role is to take responsibility for things you don’t have direct control over, to hold personal liability for a charity performing to its objects. It’s as though you’re responsible for the journey and the safety of the passengers, but you don’t hold the steering wheel.

I’m being too simplistic, but my anxiety is that when we seek new trustees, we tend to look around for a governing-sort-of-person. We summon up an image of the person who has the status to lend authority to our cause and the confidence to oversee work at arms-length. And thank goodness for them – but we are limiting our range of possible people. We should analyse more clearly what constitutes that governing skill, and how we can develop it.

However, I’m anxious too about a counter tendency to seek trustees primarily for their professional skills. Many of the adverts for trustees seek finance or business or other professional skills. In larger charities, we need them, of course, to shape and inform debate, ask the right questions, talk on equal terms with staff experts, get into networks etc. In smaller charities where we can’t cover everything with staff posts, we need trustees’ professional skills to enlarge the skill-set of the organisation. In charities where everyone is a volunteer, trustees are bound to be doing the actual work, though I still think it helps to separate out what’s the trusteeship function. I do wonder too, if sometimes a role as honorary adviser might be better than entrapping, say, a local accountant in trustee agendas most of which they can only nod through.

But the essential skill a trustee needs is not that of their professional role; it’s how to govern. That’s not an everyday skill, and it’s out of the scope of most professional skill-sets. How did we develop that skill ourselves as trustees? How do we train others in the skill, and bring on people who’d give value to the charity and benefit themselves? Because being a trustee is not only a necessary public role but an exciting personal opportunity – and one to celebrate!



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