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Britain's charities on the search for charity trustees
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice magazine, 2007
There are well over 200,000 charities in England , Scotland and Wales , and they all need people prepared to ensure that they're properly managed and properly accountable. Becoming a charity trustee means taking on some significant legal responsibilities – but in exchange there's the satisfaction of knowing that you're making a real difference to a cause dear to your heart.
Charities range from very small community-based organisations to multi-million pound ventures like Oxfam and the RNLI, but they have in common the fact that they need trustees to guide their work. Charitable organisations have different ways of describing the group of people who take legal responsibility for their work (some talk of the board of trustees, others may have a management committee or a governing body, for example), but whatever the terminology used the principle is the same. The trustees are the men and women who under charity law ensure that their organisation is meeting its objectives and using its money for charitable purposes.
The right to be called a charity is a valuable one: charities not only benefit from enormous public goodwill but also from tax concessions, most notably through the Gift Aid scheme. So it's only appropriate that charities are regulated, to demonstrate that they really are using their money correctly. In England and Wales , the chartable sector is overseen by the Charity Commission, whilst in Scotland the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR) performs a similar function. Some UK charities may be registered under both bodies.
To be a charity, an organisation must be run solely to meet one or more charitable objectives. After years when it could be difficult to know what was or was not ‘charitable' (until recently, the legislation about charities dated back to the seventeenth century), recent government reforms have made things much more straightforward. The Charities Act 2005 in England and Wales (a companion Act was passed at the same time in Scotland ) establishes thirteen possible charitable purposes, ranging from the traditional ‘prevention or relief of poverty' and ‘advancement of education' to new categories such as the ‘advancement of amateur sport' and the ‘advancement of human rights'. But the Charities Act also makes a further important stipulation: to be a charity, an organisation must provide ‘benefit to the public'.
It's still early days to see what this part of the new Act will mean in practice, but it could be that in future a public school run just for the benefit of its pupils might fail the public benefit test and have to give up its charitable status. Some religious organisations, too, could be affected. Private schools and faith bodies are among those currently taking steps to try to demonstrate that they benefit the community at large.
Making sure that a charity complies with charitable law is, of course, one of the main responsibilities of the trustees. Get it wrong, and in theory the individual trustees could be held personally liable. If money is spent wrongly, for example, trustees could be told to reimburse their organisation from their own money. Although this sort of event is highly unusual, there have been a small number of cases in recent years where this is, indeed, what happened. (Rest assured that trustees who act honestly and in good faith should have little to fear).
Nevertheless, the fact remains that charity trustees have greater legal responsibilities than company directors under company law and whilst directors are of course paid for their time and services, the key principle of charity trusteeship is that it is normally unpaid.
So becoming a trustee is not a way of boosting your income. Trustees can be reimbursed for their directly incurred expenses (in fact, it is considered good practice to do so), and in certain tightly regulated situations where they provide business services they can be given appropriate remuneration. In general, however, trusteeship is something you do for love. You are, in fact, in a position of trust in respect to those people in the community whom your charity has been set up to assist.
The new charity legislation is a symptom of a wider shift in the way charities are managed in Britain . Whilst in the past it may have been enough for trustees to have their hearts in the right place, now the emphasis is on ensuring that they have the skills needed to perform their governance roles. Well-meaning interventions are no longer enough: trustees are expected to be business-like in the way they work.
Trustees need to understand, too, that their role is a strategic one. The day-to-day management of the organisation may be undertaken by volunteers or delegated to paid staff, but either way trustees when they meet formally should guard against getting bogged down in the operational details of their charity. Trustees set the overall direction for the charity, set and monitor the budgets and appoint (if appropriate) a chief executive. What they shouldn't do is worry, let's say, about the best source for the photocopying paper. (Of course individual trustees may very well put in unpaid time, helping in the office or staffing the switchboard – but when they do, their role is that of a volunteer, not a trustee).
If this all sounds daunting, fortunately there are plenty of places to turn for help. The Charity Commission itself produces a short four page booklet for new trustees and a more comprehensive free publication The Essential Trustee (CC3). Another valuable publication is The Good Trustee Guide, available from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (£25). The Directory of Social Change (DSC) publishes some useful guides, including The Charity Trustee's Handbook (£7.95). Also from DSC is the extremely comprehensive Voluntary Sector Legal Handbook (£50); the third edition is to be published shortly.
How to become a trustee
Charities want the strongest board of trustees they can find, and many are actively looking around for new people with the right skills to join as trustees.
People with a background in traditional business skills such as accountancy and the law are particularly sought after, but the main principle is that a board of trustees needs a broadly based set of skills to function well. Other skills acquired through work or voluntary activities can be valuable, therefore. A health charity may be looking for trustees with professional nursing or medical experience, for example. A charity which is primarily member-based may need trustees who have experience of managing volunteers.
Well-run charities will also be looking for a balanced board, and may be actively trying to recruit more women trustees, and/or trustees from black and minority ethnic groups.
A good first step, if you are interested in becoming a charity trustee, is to find out whether organisations of which you are already a member are looking for new trustees. For larger organisations, it can often be a good idea to begin by writing to the chief executive or the chair of the board of trustees. Treat this a little like applying for a job: send a short ‘CV' introducing yourself, giving your experience and skills. Smaller charities will almost certainly be more informal, but nonetheless it helps to set the right tone for the future if you are business-like in your approach.
A number of organisations act as brokers, putting would-be trustees in touch with charities needing fresh blood. REACH, for example, aims to match people with managerial, professional, business and technical experience with part-time voluntary roles throughout the country. Although its work has since expanded, REACH began in 1979 with a focus very much on the retired community.
NCVO operates a comprehensive ‘trustee bank' directory, listing broker organisations. This can be reached at . It may also be worth looking at the Get On Board website, run by a voluntary sector consortium in conjunction with the Charity Commission in an attempt to encourage more people to become trustees.
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