Being a charity trustee is a very important role and if you are active in your community, particularly at this time of year, you may well have been asked to join a charity as a trustee. But what does being a trustee entail and what questions should you ask before deciding to take the plunge?
1. Do your research into the charity
Speak to the organisation before deciding to take the plunge.
Speak to staff, other trustees and, if possible, people who have used the services delivered by the charity. Get to know them as well as you can. Review the Register of Charities, where you can find the charity’s financial and compliance histories. This can give you a heads up about potential problems with the charity, problems they have in reporting and can show financial issues that might be difficult to spot.
2. Make sure you know about personal financial liability matters
Always make sure that you understand the structure of the charity that you are interested in. Different charities have different approaches when it comes to the risk of personal financial liability. Whilst there are many thousands of charities, most charities fall into one of four structures.
Of these, the Charitable Incorporated Organisation (“CIO”) and the Charitable Company Limited by Guarantee are the corporate structures where trustees and members have additional protection from liability when things go wrong financially.
Trustees of Unincorporated Charitable Associations and Charitable Trusts are potentially exposed to a higher risk of personal financially liability for what their charity does.
Trustees can protect themselves from some liability by securing insurance and many charities offer this insurance to trustees to encourage them to get involved. Ask about this if you are exploring the idea of becoming a charity trustee. Please note, you cannot insure against liability for a charity’s debts if it runs out of money.
3. Always ask about an induction pack and process.
Ideally, new charity trustees should receive a pack that provides critical information about the charity, including:
- a copy of the Governing Document or Constitution
- the Strategic Plan
- the latest Annual Report and Accounts
- the current budget and management accounts
- the names, home addresses and details of all your fellow trustees
- minutes of at least the last three trustee meetings
- the risk register
These are all important documents that should be maintained.
You should also be provided with an induction process. This should include a timetable for meeting senior staff, being able to ask probing questions about the organisation’s finances, review and discuss the risks identified in the risk register and to get a feel for the strategic objectives of the organisation and the projects they deliver to achieve them.
4. Be prepared for collective responsibility
Once you are a trustee, you are part of a group that need to act as a team.
Individual trustees cannot, unless given specific powers to do so, act on behalf of the charity and make decisions for it. If you do, you may be liable to repay any costs that the charity incurs because of your actions.
The key lesson here is to act collectively.
When you make decisions as a group of trustees, the most important decision is the decision that is taken collectively.
So, if you disagree with the decision of the board, remember that you are all bound by that decision. There may come a day when your view is the majority view. In that case, the other trustees in the minority must abide by the decision.
Always try to reach a consensus. If one cannot be reached, check your governing document to see what voting arrangements are in place for making decisions. These rules are binding so you must follow them.
If you find yourself disagreeing very strongly with a decision of the board, there may come a point where the only course of action is for you to agree to disagree and for you to step down as a trustee. This happens fairly regularly and is not a sign of failure, but a sign of responsible trusteeship. Sometimes, it just happens.
5. Trusteeship involves work
Go into trusteeship with your eyes open. Trusteeship should not just involve attending a few trustee meetings a year. A good trustee should be expected to spend time:
- Reading through papers sent in advance
- Attending all trustee meetings
- Reviewing email/written updates and reports
- Attending occasional events on behalf of the charity
- Taking part in planning meetings e.g. annual planning events
- Attending other organisational meetings e.g. AGMS
- Voting on matters as and when required
- Ensuring the organisation has the right policies and procedures in place
- Understanding the organisation’s financial position
Ask the organisation for an estimate of how many hours per month you would be expected to do work on behalf of the charity, so you can make an informed decision about the role.
Trusteeship is a privilege and a very valuable role, but be prepared for getting involved in some tough decisions and for occasional late nights when you are reading through papers or attending meetings.
But it can be an exciting and worthwhile way of giving back to your community. You’ll meet interesting and inspiring people, and you will make a real difference to people’s lives and the wider community.
So, what do I do next?
If you are interested in what the role entails, you can review the Charity Commission booklet: The Essential Trustee or the NCVO website. Both give a good breakdown of what you should expect.
LCVS can also provide advice, training, and information for charity trustees and can support trustees once they are in the post. We can also help charities to develop a process for inducting a trustee to make sure they hit the ground running.
LCVS also lets you volunteer as a trustee through our Volunteer Portal. If you are an organisation looking for a trustee, you can also use the portal to promote your vacancy.LCVS Volunteer Portal
For more information, please contact LCVS.