A trustee role is a common, feasible and often the easiest way to launch a board career. So, what is a charity trustee in the UK?
A charity trustee is a volunteer who sits on the board or committee of a charity and is responsible for the governing of a charity. They ensure that the charity is run in accordance with its charitable objectives and that its assets are used in the best interests of the beneficiaries.
What is the role of a charity trustee, what do they do?
Trustees have independent control over and are legal responsibility for a charity’s management and administration. The role of a trustee will vary depending on the charity and the board, committee or subcommittee in which they sit. Essentially the role of a charity trustee includes the following:
- Setting the charity’s strategic direction
- Appointing and overseeing the charity’s staff
- Ensuring that the charity’s finances are managed effectively
- Making sure that the charity complies with all relevant laws and regulations
- Protecting the charity’s assets and the distribution of assets
- Representing the charity to the public
Even though the role of a trustee is voluntary, the Charity Commission (the independent regulator of charities in England and Wales) expects trustees to take their responsibilities seriously, including their legal responsibilities. These responsibilities include:
- Acting in the best interests of the charity and its beneficiaries.
- Not use their position as a charity trustee for personal gain.
- Keeping any information that is not in the public domain confidential.
- Ensuring that the charity complies with its governing document
- Ensuring that the charity complies with relevant laws and regulations.
- Ensuring the charity’s assets are only used to support or carry out its work.
- Avoid exposing the charity’s assets, beneficiaries or reputation to undue risk.
- Trustees must be willing to take responsibility for their actions.
The Commission recognises that trustees are usually not experienced directors and sometimes make honest mistakes. They are, however, expected to do their best to comply with their duties. Charity law generally protects trustees who have acted honestly and reasonably.
Who can be a trustee in the UK?
Anyone can be a trustee of a charity in the UK as long as they are over the age of 18 and have the capacity to make decisions. However, there are some restrictions on who can be a trustee of a charity. The Charity Commission has a list of disqualifying factors that prevent someone from being a trustee. These include:
- Being bankrupt or having an individual voluntary arrangement (IVA)
- Having been convicted of a serious crime
- Being disqualified from acting as a company director
- Having have been removed as a trustee of any charity by the Commission (or the court) because of misconduct or mismanagement
- Being a person of unsound mind
- Being a disqualified person under the Counter-Terrorism Act 2000
- Are on the sex offenders’ register
In addition to the disqualifying factors listed above, other factors may make someone unsuitable to be a charity trustee. These include:
- Having a conflict of interest with the charity – this can lead to a trustee influencing decisions that are not in the best interest of the charity.
- Lacking the necessary business acumen, experience and skills to fulfil the role. This will vary depending on the size and scope of the charity.
- An inability to commit the time required to be an effective trustee. Most trustee boards or committees will meet formally up to eight times a year. However, trustees are often expected to be actively involved in one or more sub-committee.
How to become a charity trustee
Trustees are usually appointed by the charity’s existing trustees. Occasionally, they may be appointed by the charity’s founder or by a group of people with a vested interest in the charity. Trustees are usually appointed for a term of three to five years, with the option to be reappointed after this time.
The good news is that there are always plenty of trustee roles available. It is, therefore, not difficult to find one that suits your location, skill set, interests and passions. Some charities will have permanent openings for trustees and are always on the lookout for those who can add value to their board or committees.
If you are interested in becoming a charity trustee, there are a few things you should do:
- Know what you have to offer a charity board and have your Board CV ready.
- Write a list of target charities that you are interested in. Conduct extensive research on each charity, including its current board members. Then contact the chair, treasurer or secretary to enquire about trustee vacancies.
- Look for opportunities to volunteer with charities to gain an understanding of how charities operate, what obstacles they face, and the skills and experience that are required of charity trustees.
- Consider charities that you may have “lived experience” directly or via a friend, relative or previous roles. Charities will often give preference to those who can demonstrate “live experience or expertise, plus you will be more passionate about the cause.
- Complete a governance or trustee training course, which will provide you with the knowledge and insight to be an effective trustee.
What are the benefits of becoming a charity trustee?
There is plenty to be gained from becoming a trustee. These include:
- Develop valuable executive skills, including decision-making, negotiating and influencing, strategic thinking, asset management and budgeting.
- Learn valuable life skills, including social awareness, empathy and relationship management.
- Exposure to opportunities and challenges beyond your day job and home life.
- Boost your well-being and your confidence.
- Establish new personal and professional relationships.
- Gain the experience and confidence to take on other board or non-executive director roles.
Charity trustees play a vital role in the UK’s charitable sector by providing strategic leadership and governance and acting as the charity’s assets and reputation custodians. Charitable organisations significantly contribute to society, tackling a wide range of social and environmental issues. Without the dedication and commitment of charity trustees, these organisations would struggle to achieve their objectives and positively impact the community. If you are interested in making a difference in your community whilst gaining valuable governance and board experience, becoming a trustee of a charity is a great way to do it.
About the Author
David Schwarz is CEO & Founder of Board Appointments – The UK’s leading board advertising and non-executive career support firm. He has over a decade of experience of putting people on boards as an international headhunter and a non-executive recruiter and has interviewed over one thousand non-executives and placed hundreds into some of the most significant public, private and NFP roles in the world.