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Opening the doors to charity trusteeship

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Helen Stephenson

During Trustees Week, I hosted a roundtable for some of the charity sector’s younger trustees. The Commission is keen to demystify trusteeship, enabling more people to get involved and give back to society – and the roundtable was a great opportunity to hear from those who are currently doing the role and to learn from their experiences to help inform what more we can do as the regulator to grow the number of those volunteering at every age.

The passion, skill and experience people bring to trusteeship determines not just the success of individual charities but contributes in great part to the health of our communities and the cohesion of society.

Making time for trusteeship can be a life-enhancing experience and, at the Commission, we want a wider group to benefit from everything trusteeship has to offer, including younger people.

Open to all

Trusteeship is open to everyone. Being a trustee is rewarding as well as challenging - sometimes delightful, sometimes hard work, requiring energy and imagination in the here and now –– and is also, always, an investment in the future.

And it brings benefits for individuals too. The trustees I met at the roundtable described how being a trustee had improved their personal well-being, helped them develop a range of skills and is helping their career development. While they all had a slightly different take on trusteeship, the one thing they all had in common was that it had brought something positive to their lives. These attitudes, I’m pleased to say, are shared across our entire trustee community.

Driving change

We know younger generations are keen to enact change - and what better and more effective way to do so than from the inside. The core purpose of charities is to improve people’s lives. Be it through environmental action, tangible health and social care services or improving the accessibility of sport, the arts and culture. Being on a charity board means you’re guiding the ship, you are helping to make decisions about what the charity does and overseeing the way it is done. There are very few opportunities in the world like this, that are open to so many.

While we’re keen for more younger people to explore trusteeship, people of all ages have something to contribute to a charity’s governance. We know a board that’s more varied in background, skills and experience is more diverse in its thinking. A leadership team – whether executive or non-executive - that can scrutinise and evaluate a problem or opportunity from a variety of perspectives is likely to be more effective than one that’s governed by people who all come from the same walk of life.

We’re aware that work still needs to be done to open the doors to trusteeship. One of the common misconceptions, and something I again heard last week, was that trusteeship ‘isn’t for people like me’. As one trustee said, ‘you can’t be, what you can’t see’.

Recommendations your organisation can consider to help tackle this could include:

  • fair and open recruitment practices are one-way charities can challenge this misconception. Being explicit about what you’re looking for is important
  • if there is a particular skill or experience you’re missing from your board, say so, People don’t always read between the lines
  • use language that demonstrates you’re keen to receive applications from a diverse range of people

I’m pleased to say we will be reviewing our Finding new trustees guidance next year. This will support charities to recruit to their boards.

While there is still work to be done, there is so much to celebrate about the sector and those who lead it. But the discussion left me feeling optimistic and hopeful for the future. The sector is already in the safe hands of current trustees and I hope many more will make the decision to join them soon.

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  1. Comment by Anne Budd posted on

    I welcome this posting. It is helpful to me as a trustee. Walking in others shoes, can be illuminating.

    Charity governance is an important element of a trustee's role and I would like to suggest that the Charity Commission (at some time) implement some online training for potential trustees and experienced ones, also.

  2. Comment by Graham posted on

    I would love to be a trustee but based on my own dealings with a supposed Independent Charitable Trust, I wouldn’t last an hour!

  3. Comment by Graham posted on

    We all have our own perceptions on life and there are many people out there who, like me, do not have particularly positive experiences when it comes to dealing with charitable organisations.
    Being a trustee should be based on promoting trust for the benefit of the public and creating an image of transparency, honesty and ethical principles.
    Unfortunately, it quite often doesn’t play out like this.


  4. Comment by David Stoneman posted on

    A proposal for the CEO of Charities Commission (CC):

    Having seen this post, I spent some time this morning researching a long-standing dilemma that's existed in my mind, having locally set up an infant project to attempt to recruit retiring baby boomers from professional backgrounds in large local companies as trustees, given the extreme shortage in our area

    I also have some experience of dealing at board level with a variety of small and medium sized charities in my area

    Here are the results of my research:

    Executive Sumnary:
    In order to square the circle of (in practice) too much legal responsibility required of trustees (due to a lack of root and branch review of charity law in UK needed for the last 50 years)... who cannot be as dedicated to the local objectives as the management team who set up the charity…

    I propose that the CC set up and arrange funding for the equivalent of a Recruitment Agency for Trustees;
    the opportunities, benefits and responsibilities could be promoted to large companied in both Public and Private sector in their pre-Retirement Packs…

    Applicants would approach the new agency and be matched with charities who have expressed a need for additional Trustees with specific knowledge, skills and experience

    Here is the research detail:

    Aim: to find a practical solution to propose to Charities Commission (CC) to solve a decades-old problem

    The problem stated:
    Small shed medium charities in the UK with turnover of, say, up to £10 million are required by CC rules to identify and appoint at least 3 Trustees who ideally are not part of their management team;

    These trustees are most likely not a part of the group who originally set up the charity, so have less dedication to the local objectives than the small management team;

    According to charity law, these trustees have to take on legal responsibility for everything that charity undertake, including its financial charity sector regulation and management;

    The Treasurer post is particularly onerous, with the duties equivalent to what a highly-paid commercial financial director would undertake, with full commitment to CC duties occupying the best part of a full working week for s mediation sized charity, turnover £10 million;

    The charity could appoint its own management team to be trustees, but this is not favoured by CC due to likely conflicts of interest for example those managers pay rates;

    In practice, a charity CEO can appoint a new Chair and Treasurer today, and have them agree his/her pay increase tomorrow, and that fits the legalrulesb reasonably well, but is a clear conflict of interest !!!
    There is guidance to say that the CEO should only act as correspondence secretary on the recruitment process, but how can that be in such small organisations?

    So, in conclusion, the charity faced either
    1) recruiting Trustees outside the management team, who then, by law, should undertake rigorous training to be able to adequately undertake their duties, even though they are unpaid and have many other family and friends responsibilities
    2) doing the same training themselves and then continuously monitoring and operating their Conflict of Interest policy measures to manage those

    What would be a practical solution to prpose to Charities Commission (CC) to solve this problem?

    Here is a proposed practical solution to address this longstanding issue for small and medium charities in the UK:

    A **Create a Pool of Independent Trustees**

    The Charities Commission could establish a pool of qualified, independent trustees who are willing to serve on charity boards. These individuals would undergo rigorous vetting and training in nonprofit governance, finance, and relevant regulations. The pool could include both newly retired professionals with expertise to offer as well as young professionals seeking board experience.

    B Incentivize Participation

    To encourage skilled individuals to participate, the CC could offer incentives like formal recognition, training certificates, access to events, or even nominal compensation in some cases. This helps address the lack of personal dedication to objectives.

    C Standardize & Streamline Onboarding

    Streamline paperwork and processes to smoothly onboard these independent trustees. Create standard trainings and materials to efficiently educate them on a charity’s particular mission, finances, programs etc.

    D Formalize The Role

    Create clear job descriptions, terms of service, etc. to formalize trustee duties and expectations regardless of whether they are independent or internal hires. This clarifies the legal responsibilities.

    E Oversee Appointments

    The CC could oversee or even facilitate pairing charities to appropriate member(s) of this trustee pool. This prevents self-dealing like managers appointing trustees that will rubber stamp pay increases.

    By developing this centralized infrastructure, small and mid-sized charities can find it easier to appoint qualified, dedicated independent trustees rather than relying on informal, personal networks. The burden is also reduced compared to rigorously training trustees from scratch each time.

    I await any changes with interest !

  5. Comment by David Stoneman posted on

    Younger potential recruits of course could also apply through the same agency:-)

  6. Comment by Robin Tatam posted on

    It is absolutely vital that all trustees, existing and potential, should fully understand that there is a minimum level of commitment including proactive input of their own initiative.
    Too many think it is sufficient to take on the role and responsibilities and sit back to be spoon-fed briefings, attending to the charity only on picking up the pack on the day of the board meeting, and remain inert in between.
    There should be an understanding that the minimum of several hours a week should be set aside, to consider the charity’s interests - if that cannot be afforded in a busy schedule, do not become a trustee!
    Often the resentment and adverse reaction when the chair asks for more active input and increased overt interest in charity matters, is extraordinary.
    Too often trustees come onboard with their own agenda which does not always align with the charity’s own, and take the line that since it is a voluntary contribution, there should be no criticism, just gratitude.
    Trustees should be treated as if employees, with job specification, and certainly, annual performance review.
    Sitting back and feeling worthy is not an option.
    Those brought in for access to their particular expertise and experience do not have to take on trusteeship for that advice to be available.
    There is an urgent need for a completely different understanding of trusteeship.