Every charity has the ability to develop a strong board by recruiting charity trustees that are right for the role. Whether it is a professional or layperson, the role comes with significant responsibilities. This means that the trustee you appoint must be reliable, trustworthy and committed. It is very important that the trustee board is well balanced with a mixture of skills and expertise. Fundraising, finance, legal, marketing sectors are some examples . It is therefore advisable to have a regular trustee skills audit. This will identify areas of lack of expertise which will in turn help recruit new trustees with those required skills.
What makes you a good trustee?
As a good trustee, you have to be someone who fits into the ethos of your charity. You have to be able to understand what the aims of the charity are and where it wants to go.
An essential quality of a trustee is to be able to use your expertise for the charity’s benefit. You should be able to guide staff and use your professional experience. If you are a lawyer by profession you should be expected to guide the charity with legal issues.
Being a trustee is a serious commitment. No matter how good a trustee is, but if they are not able to attend meetings regularly and give up their time to prepare for these meetings they are not going to be of much use to the charity. Recruit a trustee not only because of their status in the community, but also because they have time for your charity.
Trustees have a responsibility of taking decision. These are mostly good decision, for example, expansion of the charity but sometime bad, for example, closing the charity. As a responsible board comprised of good trustee, you should be able to make these decisions with prudence.
A person should be legally eligible to act as a trustee. You should be above the minimum age (at least 16 years)and a fit and proper person. Additionally, you should not be disqualified of acting as a Trustee by Charity Commission. In certain cases, safeguarding and DBS checks will also have to be carried out.
What are your responsibilities as a trustee?
As a good trustee, you need to take your responsibilities very seriously. You must protect the interest of the charity at all times. Because, if you do not act with reasonable care, you can be personally liable for the damages to the charity.
Charitable purpose and public benefit
As a charity trustee, you must continually assess the charities activities to ensure it continues to attain the purpose for which it was set up. All charitable purposes must provide benefit to the public and so all activities should provide public benefit too. When embarking on expansion of provision of service the trustees need to ask whether these are within the objects of the charity. Not only that, you need to ask whether the new services provide public benefit to the beneficiaries identified in the charity’s aims.
Compliance with charity’s governing document and charity law
The last this you want to do is to be on the wrong side of the law. Acting voluntarily and without remuneration does not mean that you will not be personally liable if things go wrong. And if you do not exercise reasonable care and skill in making decisions things can easily go wrong.
You need to ensure that not only the charity but also its staff and co-trustees abide by the law, most importantly, charity’s governing document. All provisions of the governing document are as important as the Charities Act and requirements stipulated by Charity Commission. You must prepare a Trustees Report annually which complies with Charity Law. Here is more information on what to include in your trustees report. Any actions ultra-virus the governing document cannot be ratified by the trustees subsequently.
Similarly, ignorance of the law is not excusable. So as trustee, one of your primary obligation is to take reasonable care in identifying what legal requirements does your charity and you need to comply with. Among other things, care should be taken to comply with requirement of appointment of trustees, audit and accounts, transactions with related parties, trustee’s remuneration etc.
Act in your charity’s best interest
To be able to make decision and act in the charity’s best interest you need to be an independent trustee without any direct or indirect interest in the charity. Meaning, your personal interest should not be in conflict with that of the charity. In other words, your personal benefit should not be influencing your decisions about the charity. Therefore, neither you or any of your relative or connected persons or organisation should be a direct beneficiary of the charity.
Even though, you may not have any conflict of interest with the charity, you should take decisions that are in the best interest of the charity. The decisions should be rational that any reasonable person should be able to take.
Manage charity’s resources responsibly
The trustees have a fiduciary duty to protect the assets of the charity. As trustee, you should ensure that the charities assets and resources are not only used solely for charitable purposes but also put appropriate safeguards in place to avoid abuse. The trustees cannot always be involved in the day to day activities of the charity, but they need to have procedures in place which protects the charity. Reckless spending and investing can have a detrimental effect to the finances of the charity. Moreover, charity funds should be spent on for the project and activities for which they have been received.
Act with reasonable care
In the event of a claim against the charity or losses suffered by it, if the trustees can demonstrate that they took all reasonable care possible to act in the best interest of the charity they may not be held liable for negligence. It is, therefore, extremely necessary for trustees to exercise reasonable care and skill in whatever they do regarding the charity. For this reason, as trustee, you need to take the time to understand the charity, its finances, aims and circumstances before making important decisions.
With a view to help small charities Charity Commission has listed 6 main duties that are essential for a trustee.
What questions should a trustee ask at a board meeting?
When you as a trustee attend a board meeting, you are expected to play an active role. If you are just rubber stamping the proposals and decisions taken by staff, then you are being complacent. You are expected to review the proposals and assess the pros and cons, ask questions and then make up your own mind. There will be times when you do have the expertise to decide in which case you should consider obtaining external professional advice.
As a new trustee you should ask to have a copy of the governing document. This will provide you with an insight into the rules that govern the charity. It stipulates how the charity should be run and how the meetings should be conducted.
Money is always an important part of any charity and so, trustees should ask where the money is going and how will the projects be funded. While they might have been told about the exciting work that the charity is doing, often the finance side of running a charity can get overlooked. You should ask for budgets and forecasts along with management to be presented at regular intervals.
Finally, trustees need to be clear about their priorities and one of the main priorities are the beneficiaries. The charity may have been set up to support, people, animals or groups and so, you should ask about how the actions of the charity benefit the beneficiary and public.
How to find new trustees
The most common way to find new trustees is to ask around. Most often than not a trustee will know someone who may have the expertise and willingness to come on board. Advertising on charity’s website and informing of the vacancy to charities contacts can often yield good results. It is very common to approach reputed members of the community to join the board.
It you however want to go beyond the community you can always advertise in local newspapers or online. Most charities can get a discounted rate.
You can also find some online trustee matching services that charities can use for free.