Debunking Myths about Being a Charity Trustee

Being a trustee for a charity is a rewarding and fulfilling role that allows you to make a significant impact on the causes you care about.

As a Trustee myself, I know how big the impact can be when there is a solid Board of Trustees who is eager to provide guidance and direction for a Charity. Being a Trustee is a role that many may be intimidated by, as it is often depicted as something inaccessible or difficult. The knowledge about what it means to be a Trustee is often cloudy at best: I aim to shed some light on the common misconceptions surrounding the responsibilities and requirements of being a charity Trustee.

In this article, I will debunk eight common misconceptions, and hopefully encourage more and more people to consider being a Charity Trustee.

What is a Charity? 

A charity is an organisation that is established with the primary aim of benefiting the public or a specific group of individuals. Charities operate under strict regulations and rely on donations, grants, and other forms of support to carry out their charitable activities, which can range from providing assistance to vulnerable individuals and communities, advancing education, promoting health and well-being, supporting arts and culture, conserving the environment, or conducting research. Charities play a vital role in addressing social issues and making a positive impact on society.

What is a Trustee? 

A trustee is an individual who serves on the governing board of a charity and is responsible for overseeing its operations, management, and strategic direction. Trustees play a vital role in ensuring that the charity remains true to its mission and acts in the best interests of its beneficiaries and the communities it serves. They are entrusted with legal and financial responsibilities, making decisions that shape the charity’s future.

The senior staff of the organisation are accountable to the Trustees are report to them on a regular basis on the overall activity and financial position of the company. Basically, this means that Trustees are the “overall bosses” of a Charity, and ensure that the Executive Team are accountable for their work and continue to fulfill the organisation’s charitable objectives.

What Are a Charity Trustee’s Responsibilities?

As a charity Trustee, you have several key responsibilities. These include:

  1. Setting the strategic direction: Trustees participate in the development and implementation of the charity’s strategic plan, ensuring that it aligns with its mission and objectives.
  2. Governance and compliance: Trustees are responsible for ensuring that the charity operates within legal and regulatory frameworks, adhering to governance standards and fulfilling reporting requirements.
  3. Financial oversight: Trustees monitor the charity’s financial health, reviewing budgets, financial statements, and ensuring proper financial controls are in place.
  4. Risk management: Trustees identify and mitigate risks that may affect the charity’s operations, reputation, or beneficiaries, implementing appropriate policies and procedures.
  5. Fundraising and advocacy: Trustees often play a role in supporting the charity’s fundraising efforts, helping to secure resources and promote the organisation’s work within the community.

You can find further detail about Trustee responsibilities on the government’s website.

Misconceptions About Being a Charity Trustee

8 Misconceptions About Being a Charity Trustee

1. You need to be an expert or have tonnes of experience

While expertise and experience can be beneficial and can sometimes be specifically required when looking for new Trustees, they are not mandatory. Charities value diverse perspectives and fresh ideas, and being passionate about the cause is often more important than your professional seniority.

For example, many charities that focus on artistic output, such as theatres or galleries, would value a Board member who can represent their audience, or the artists they platform. Their viewpoint as beneficiaries would be enough to be more than welcomed to the Board of Trustees, without the need for them to be an expert in their field.

2. It takes up a lot of your time

Being a charity trustee does require a commitment of time and effort, but it is manageable. Some roles may require a bit more of your capacity, such as being the Chair, or the Treasurer. These two roles hold more administrative responsibilities that may take up a few more hours of work every month. However, being a Trustee take up less time than you might think.

When engaging with a Charity, they should be able to quantify how much of your time they expect you to make available for them, and of course this will change depending on what charity you are in conversation with. Generally speaking, these are the regular commitments you will be asked of as a Trustee who isn’t the Chair or the Treasurer:

  • Quarterly Board meetings (3-4 hours every three months including prep time): usually, Trustees have a Board meeting every three months with the Charity’s senior team. An agenda and Board papers are circulated in advance, containing the main Executive and financial reports. Your duty is to read these reports before the meeting, and participate to the meeting itself.
  • Ad hoc mentoring or consulting: you may be required to meet with the Charity’s staff members if you can provide useful guidance or advice on anything they are working on. It’s hard to predict how often this happens, however, in my experience this averages at a couple of hours per month.
  • Participating to the Charity’s events: as a Trustee, you will be invited to come to the Charity’s programme of activity. These may include fundraising events, shows, exhibitions, galas, educational programmes, etc. Although it is an appreciated gesture to show up and support these events directly, it will never be mandatory for you to participate to any of these, and you will not be in breach of any duty if you are unable to make it to most events.

3. The process to become a Trustee is complicated

The process of becoming a trustee is not as complex as it may seem.

For some Charities it may be entirely informal: you may have a chat with one or more members of the senior team, and then invited to observe a Board meeting, after which you will make a decision about whether you’d like to come on board (pun intended!).

Other times, the process may be formal and structured, and similar to a job application: this may include writing a letter about why you’d like to join the Board, and an interview with senior staff and other Trustees.

Once you put your name forward to be a Trustee, you will be formally elected at the following Board meeting, and you will need to fill in a form with your personal details to be added to the organisation’s Charities Commission portal.

Please don’t be discouraged by the onboarding process: charities are often eager to welcome new trustees and will support you at every step.

4. You need to know a lot about the charity before becoming one of its Trustees

While having some understanding of the charity’s work is beneficial, you do not need to be an expert beforehand. As a trustee, you will learn more about the charity’s operations and contribute your skills and knowledge to its growth.

The important part is to be familiar with their overall work and align with their values and mission. Everything else you will have the opportunity to learn about as you go.

5. The role of a Trustee is impossibly complex

As a Trustee, most of your work is asking questions rather than providing answers. Trustees should serve as a sounding board to the Executive team of the Chairty, and enable them to fulfill the Charity’s objectives as best as they can.

If you are a new or young Trustee, you will never be expected to take any important decisions by yourself, and you are often provided training and support to help you understand your duties and contribute effectively.

Fellow Trustees are also generally eager to help and mentor less experienced Board members to understand the more technical reports, such as the end of year accounts or anything related to a complicated project.

Personally speaking, I learned a lot about how to be a Trustee by just being one: by participating to the Board meetings and connecting with the work, you will learn how to fulfil this role with time and with the support of the team.

Misconceptions Charity Trustee

6. Most Trustees are over 50 years old

Although many experienced individuals serve as trustees, there is a growing recognition of the need for diversity in charity boards. Younger individuals bring fresh perspectives and innovative ideas, making them valuable assets as trustees.

This is especially true for the Charities that serve younger beneficiaries, such as youth theatres or charities with a focus on education and community work.

7. Young (under 25) people have little to offer as Trustees

Young people have a wealth of skills, energy, and passion to contribute as trustees. Their unique perspectives can help shape charities’ strategies and engage with younger demographics. They can challenge Charities to strive for positive change, and be responsive to the social environment that the organisaiton operates in.

As long as you are passionate about what the charities does and its impact on the community it serves, you shouldn’t be discouraged by your young age to put forward your interest to become a Trustee. There are plenty of brilliant ideas and perspectives you can offer as a Trustee.

8. Trustees are personally liable for the charity

A trustee is only personally liable for a breach of their fiduciary duties. The Trustee’s fiduciary duties include:

  • A duty of loyalty: act solely in the interest of the beneficiaries
  • A duty of prudence: when managing the Charity’s assets, you should follow the standard safeguards and risk assessments before taking decisions about its future
  • Subsidiary duties: be impartial, don’t exercise any favouritisms between classes of beneficiaries, keep the beneficiaries informed about the Charity’s activities and financial position, and don’t use the Charity’s property for your own personal use.

If a Trustee is in breach of any of the above duties, they may be personally liable. However, if something wrong happens that isn’t a consequence of being in breach of your duties as a Trustee, you need not worry.

For example, if as a result of a period of financial distress the Charity becomes insolvent, meaning that it is unable to pay its debts, you won’t be personally responsible to pay those debts. The charity is a separate legal entity, and none of its Trustees or Directors will become personally liable in case of insolvency or other hardships.

Conclusion About Misconceptions About Being a Charity Trustee

Becoming a charity trustee is an excellent opportunity to make a positive impact on society and support causes you care about. By debunking these misconceptions, I hope to encourage a broader range of individuals to consider taking up this wonderful. and important role. Regardless of your age or level of expertise, your dedication, commitment, and desire to make a difference are what truly matter as a charity trustee.

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About the author : Susie Italiano

debunking myths about being a trustee
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