Being a trustee: a view from the ground

What do the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, and Kids Company have in common? They are both large, child-focused charities that closed within a week of each other. Attention has turned to the governance of these organisations and, more specifically, the trustees with whom guardianship of a charity sits.

Who are trustees?

Trustees are drawn from all walks of life. Many work full time while juggling their trusteeship along with an array of other personal and professional commitments. Others may be retired, self-employed or running their own business, or taking a break from work. English may not be their first language, which can make being a trustee all the more complex.

However it is not good enough to claim ignorance about your trustee duties. Trusteeship is a voluntary role that comes with specific legal responsibilities. Trustees are responsible for the strategic oversight of a charity and are held collectively accountable for the decisions they make.

Based on my experience of being a trustee of two organisations, I have 10 tips for you if you are thinking about becoming a trustee:

1. Motives matter

It mattered to me that I could explain to others why I had chosen to become a trustee, and if you’re interested in trusteeship, it really helps to know your reasons. Think about why you have chosen this and how much you know about what being a trustee entails. Is it about professional development or representation? Are you looking to advocate on behalf of others? There are many reasons – knowing yours will help you move forward.

2. Talk to other trustees

Before you commit, find out who else is on the board and meet them to ask them about the nuts and bolts of being a trustee. What do they do, how do they share their skills, how do they describe their trustee experience? Find out about the board culture and how decisions are made. If you become a trustee, you will find your role is to ask difficult questions – so start now.

3. Insist on an induction

Once you decide on the right organisation and board for you, make sure you have an induction. This will include understanding the governing document inside out, the structure of the board and who is on it, the signatories on the bank account, organisational and financial policies and procedures, and the risk register. Governance is about keeping on top of and updating all of this, not glancing once at eg. the reserves policy and forgetting about it.

4. Honour your boundaries with staff

In general, it is only in small organisations where staff have limited capacity and require hands-on support that you should involve yourself in the operational aspects of a charity. However, you must make sure you have clear reporting and oversight mechanisms in place to alert you to any risks or problems. Assert yourself and be ready to cross boundaries if the circumstances require it.

5. Learn how to read accounts

Do not rely on anyone’s interpretation to read accounts. Make it your business to get the accounts in advance of meetings, read them and prepare to ask any questions, however awkward you might feel. Scrutiny and acting as a critical friend to your fellow trustees is why you are there so use your eagle eyes! If you don’t understand, find an accountant and ask them to explain a balance sheet to you.

6. Consider yourself a legally liable volunteer

You are accountable for the decisions you make as a board. I had to complete declaration forms for HMRC and send my personal details to the Charity Commission and Companies House. I made decisions where I was held collectively accountable with people I barely knew. You will too.

7. Develop yourself as a trustee

You make a difference not by what you bring but by what you do. For example, if you have social media or external relations skills, come up with a strategy for how other trustees can play an ambassadorial role and how you can help them promote the organisation.

8. Instigate or carry out a skills audit

Skills audits help boards to recognise their strengths and weaknesses as a collective. From this you will be able to recruit or address the skills gaps. Contact NCVO if you would like support in this area.

9. Get to know your chair and fellow trustees professionally and socially

Your chair is the direct link to the staff team and will more often than not keep your trustee meetings moving along, making sure board decisions are delegated and implemented. Get to know your chair because at times of change or uncertainty, the chair may need more from trustees and you will be a more effective source of governance and moral support.

10. Enjoy it!

Being a trustee is a fantastic way to volunteer. You can offer your brain, time and energy and although at times it may not feel like it, trustees can increase the good in the world.

Further information

NCVO has plenty of information and support to guide you. Find out more at the following links:

  • Our Governance webpages on KnowHowNonProfit
  • Forthcoming NCVO events:
    • Understanding the numbers: Financial intelligence for trustees – 18 November 2016
    • Charity Trustees: Induction and Refresher Training – 12 December 2016
    • The High Performance Board – 6 February 2017
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Jarina is our volunteering development consultancy officer. Jarina develops consultancy and training services with the aim of improving volunteering practice across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

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