Questions to ask before becoming a trustee

  1. What is a trustee?
    Trustees are the people who serve on the governing body of a charity. They may be known as trustees, directors, board
    members, governors, committee members or something else. They have ultimate legal responsibility for the charity’s management and administration. Trustees come from all walks of life, from professionals to people with personal skills and lived experience. There are around 800,000 trustee positions in the UK. 48% of trustees are female. 66% of trustees are over 50 years of age but young people can make great trustees and should be encouraged to join boards.
  2. Why should I become a trustee?
    There are a number of good reasons for being a trustee. For example, you:
    • Will have a lot of skills and experiences to bring to a charity’s board.
    • Will develop transferable skills, improve your CV, and broaden your experience
    • Will meet a wide range of new people which could open doors to all sorts of other networks and opportunities
    • Have the chance to shape, support and contribute your ideas and knowledge to a meaningful cause and organisations.

    Trustees play a vital role in a sector that contributes significantly to the character and wellbeing of the country.
  3. How can I contribute to a charity board?
    Around 50% of all charities are looking for new trustees at any one time. Each charity is in need of a range of professional skills, such as law, finance, fundraising, IT, HR, PR, marketing as well as lived experience and ‘soft’ skills. However, you do not need to be a specialist to be valuable. If you apply fresh perspective, commitment, and a bit of common sense, you’ll be doing a good job.
  4. What do trustees do?
    Being a trustee is like a non-executive director of a company. A trustee’s role is to provide checks and balances and oversight of the organisation’s performance, ethics, finances, and risks. Trustees ensure that the charity complies with all relevant law and that it is well-run, in good financial shape and importantly, delivering its charitable objects to the best of its ability. Trustees support and challenge the management team (where there is one) on strategy and major decision-making so they can deliver the charity’s activities effectively. A trustee board should not interfere inappropriately in the day-to-day operations but, from time to time, particularly in small charities, trustees may well be more involved.
  5. What do I need to know about charity?
    To be a responsible trustee, you need to have an understanding of the role of charity in society. For many trustee positions, you will not be expected to have board level experience already or be an expert in either the specific cause or in charity law. What is vital is that you feel passionate about the mission of the charity you join and that you understand your duties as responsibilities as a trustee. The Charity Commission has produced guidance for trustees on the role of a trustee and a trustee’s legal duties which can be found here.
  6. How can I prepare to become a trustee?
    A lot of charities will provide new trustees with an induction and training. With or without this, it’s important for you to feel comfortable with the charity’s procedures, systems, and processes and confident in your understanding of the charity’s mission, its activities, and achievements. It is sensible to request and review a copy of the charity’s annual report, finances, and governing documents prior to joining a board. It might also be worthwhile asking if you can sign a non-disclosure agreement and observe a trustee meeting before you officially join and talk to some of the other trustees.
  7. Is being a trustee a voluntary role?
    Unlike non-executive directors of a company, trustees shouldn’t expect to be paid other than legitimate, agreed, out of pocket expenses. It is not forbidden to pay trustees, but it requires approval from the Charity Commission and in practice it is the exception rather than the norm.
  8. How often do trustees generally meet?
    Depending on the size and complexity of a charity, trustees will usually meet as a board on average between four and eight times per year. A well-chaired meeting, in normal circumstances, should not last longer than two hours.
  9. What is expected of trustees between board meetings?
    You will be expected to read papers carefully in advance of meetings and make notes of issues that you do not understand or where you have comments. There are likely to be sub-committees where you can apply your specialist expertise or interests (e.g. finance committee). Sub-committee meetings take place in addition to board meetings, usually on a quarterly basis. You’ll be able to contribute much more and get more out of your role if you attend the occasional event, offer introductions and connections to the charity, or support the senior management with a particular project. Trusteeship can be demanding in terms of time, skills, knowledge, and abilities. It is therefore a good idea to clarify with a charity during the interview and appointment process what will be expected of you.
  10. How long will I be a trustee for?
    Most trustee boards have a fixed term of membership (e.g. three years) with a limit on how many terms you can serve as a trustee. The trustee terms of office will usually be set out in the charity’s governing document. Could I incur personal liability as a trustee? It is extremely rare, but not impossible, for trustees to be held personally liable either to the charity for a financial loss caused by them acting improperly or to a third party. However, there are a number of steps which a charity and trustees can take to reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of personal liability. The Charity Commission expects trustees to take their role seriously while also recognising that most trustees are volunteers who sometimes make honest mistakes. Charity law generally protects trustees who have acted honestly and reasonably. Some charities also provide trustee indemnity insurance. If the charity is incorporated as a company, trustees may also incur personal liability in their capacity as company directors.
  1. What is good governance of a charity?
    First and foremost, trustees need to make sure that a charity is always focused on its mission and meeting its charitable
    objects to the best of its ability. Trustees have the responsibility to ensure that the charity complies with its legal, financial, and ethical obligations. On a practical level, trustees need to make sure that the charity is accountable to the Charity Commission and Companies House (if it is incorporated) and files its report and accounts on time. Good governance means having sensible internal controls and policies to govern the charity’s operations (from personnel, fiscal, risk to legal matters). A useful framework of good governance developed to help guide trustees is The Charity Governance code.
  2. What questions might be useful to ask at board meetings?

    What are the charity’s headline results since the last meeting?

    Are we making best use of resources to fulfil our mission?

    What is the evidence that demonstrates that we are achieving our objectives?

    Are we focusing on the right things or have we drifted into activities that are inconsistent with our core charitable aims?

    What is the state of our finances, including expenditure and adequacy of resources?

    How are we progressing with fundraising targets?

    Do we need to review any contracts or major commitments?

    Are there any areas we might require some specialist advice?
    (e.g. pension schemes, redundancies, property, investment management, charity law)

    Are there issues or risks relating to the conduct of the charity generally?

    What are the current obstacles and what is not going so well?

Our commitment to diversity & inclusion

Trustees Unlimited believes that diverse boards strengthen society. We will strive to remove the barriers that prevent people from applying to become trustees and help our clients to recruit and support people with a wide range of skills and lived experience.

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