What research should you do before saying yes to a charity trustee role?

Following a report recently published in Third Force News highlighting that a survey of almost 700 smaller organisations has revealed that only 47% are confident that they will be financially sustainable in in 2023, it’s never been a more important time to recruit good charity trustees.

However, before you take the leap into trustee-dom, what research should you do to make sure you are in the best position to accept a role? There are a number of practical steps you can take to ensure you enter into a trustee role with your eyes wide open, these include:

  • Supportive structure – Does the charity offer trustee training or on boarding/ mentoring? Can you see previous minutes of meetings to get a feeling about the charity/ style of board meetings/ if opposing views and thoughts are welcome. Some charities arrange for prospective trustees to sit in on meetings as observers before taking the plunge. This would assist you to make the most of your time as a trustee of the charity.
  • Personality mix – What are the other trustees like? How long have they sat on the board? What are the relationships like between the trustees? Are there any tensions or disagreements you should be aware of? How well do the trustees work with the Chief Executive and senior management team? This will allow you to assess what a role within the board will be able to deliver.
  • Regulatory compliance – Is the charity up to date with its OSCR filings? This will indicate if there are any financial or other issues the charity is currently having. Are they on top of other, relevant requirements e.g. the Care Inspectorate? What is the strategic plan for the organisation? You can also see if the charity is in good financial health and has a plan to continue operating successfully.
  • Expectation management – Does the charity expect you to attend board meetings only or do they also want you to attend fundraising events/ introduce donors/ commit to fundraising on behalf of the charity? Knowing in advance what you are required to do will manage your and others expectations, and no two charities operate in exactly the same way.
  • Trustee structure – Does the charity have any sub-committees that would be good to get involved with e.g. fundraising, financial or HR? These specialist areas will help you to provide practical input and support using your own experience.
  • View from the street – Check out the charity online. Are there any news articles or stories that include the charity or information on its activities that you want to read about before committing to a position?
  • Think of the practicalities – From a practical point of view, how often do the trustees meet? When, where, timings etc. Check if this suits your lifestyle and current commitments before you agree to join.

Don’t forget that trustees are ultimately responsible for the charity and therefore you would take equal share in this responsibility. You must act in the interests of the charity, including ensuring it works to achieve its purposes; in addition, you must look after the charity’s affairs as carefully as you would someone else’s and any conflicts of interest should be carefully managed. The Charity Commission in England and Wales has recently created a new welcome pack for charity trustees that focuses on the main duties of the role (further information https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/charity-trustee-welcome-pack).

It provides essential information to help you understand governance basics, financial filing requirements and how the Charity Commission can offer support. It also suggests practical steps that can be taken to carry out trustee duties effectively. All new trustees who register their email address with Charity Commission will receive a copy.

“As a trustee, you will be able to use your skills and experience and have a direct influence over a cause you care about. It is a rewarding role, but there are responsibilities meaning you will need to give up enough time to help your charity succeed. You should use your first six months to really get to understand your role and responsibilities. We have prepared this short guide to help you do that. It tells you what to expect in your first year and where you can get more detailed advice.

Charities have a special place in our society because they are committed to helping others. This creates a level of trust from the public that we must protect. You will need to help run an effective charity that shows how it operates for the good of others, while we will provide guidance and services to support you in that.”

Helen Stephenson – Chief Executive – Charity Commission