Saturday, 13 July 2013

The seven habits of being a great charity trustee

During my time in the non-profit sector I have come across some great trustees, some average trustees and some not-so-good ones. So what makes a great trustee? In this blog I draw on my experience of being a trustee of two organisations and my observations of trustees in charities I have worked in or been involved in. This blog may help you to be a better trustee, to see whether trusteeship is for you, or simply to confirm you are doing a great job. If it does any of these things, my Saturday morning has been worthwhile!

My first observation is that trustees should choose the right cause. You need to be passionate about the cause you volunteer for. You need to be able to demonstrate that passion to fellow trustees, charity staff and volunteers and to the outside world - supporters and potential supporters. If you are not passionate about the cause, wait until an opportunity comes up in a cause you really do care about. But please do not apply to be a trustee simply to develop your own brand or profile; I have seen this all too often!

Secondly you need to decide what you can bring to the board table. What expertise, support and advice can you add to the current skills mix on the board. Are you an HR expert, a communications guru, a technical geek, a great fundraiser, a finance wizard? Whatever your professional expertise and experience, plus what you have gained in the past or in your personal life, can all be valuable to the mix. So conduct a skills audit of yourself to see what you can bring and then match that to what the charity needs.

Thirdly, a great trustee needs to have a huge amount of commitment. No matter how busy your day job, being a trustee is a big responsibility and you need to be able to commit to this. So what might this look like? Well, most trustee boards meet at least quarterly, in many cases more frequently. This may be a 3 or 4 hour commitment in addition to any preparation time. Many trustee boards also have an annual or bi-annual awayday, which you need to be at. Often this is a great opportunity to meet and work with the staff team. You may also be expected to sit on a sub-committee - typically these include finance & resources, fundraising, programmes, etc. You should also be prepared to attend fundraising events and other charity activities. Finally you may be expected to coach or support a particular member or team within the charity's staff. For example I work very closely with the Head of Fundraising in the charity I volunteer for.

Attending meetings in your role as a trustee is not just about being there! You have to be able to make intelligent input and to make key decisions. This is simply not possible if you have not put in any preparation time. I cannot tell you the times I have seen trustees in organisations I have worked in as a staff member making comments or asking questions that made it obvious they had not done their prep. And saying you are a volunteer is not an acceptable excuse. Either you are in the game or not!

Fourthly you need to be knowledgable about the charity's work. At the very least this means reading and understanding the annual review and other publications, talking to the staff team, attending briefings and presentations, but preferably you should see the charity's work first hand, although I appreciate this may not always be possible for international charities. You need to know more than the donors you will undoubtedly meet at events. They will expect you to, as will staff. There is nothing more frustrating for staff to feel that a trustee does not understand the work of the charity. 

You also need to have a firm grip and understanding of the charity's strategy and finances. Ultimately these are the responsibilities of the trustee; this is what good governance is all about.

Fifthly you need to understand the boundaries between staff and trustees, and I think this is where many trustees get it badly wrong. Many trustees over-step the mark and get bogged down in the details of what are staff responsibilities. You are there to support, advise and to ensure the strategy is delivered, not to interfere!

Sixthly, you may get involved in recruiting key staff.  This has massive potential to go wrong, especially if you are recruiting a new CEO or director. The best trustee boards also involve the senior management team of the charity in these decisions. In the small charity I am on the board of, all the staff team met potential CEO candidates before the ultimate (good) choice was made. To do good recruitment you need to make the right choice based on where the organisation is now, and where it needs to be. This should be based on the the charity's strategic goals, not your personal preferences.

And the seventh habit (and this is the one that is most controversial!) is that trustees should give and get. By this I mean you must be prepared to give money at a level you can afford, and also help the charity raise funds, either through fundraising yourself (see my previous blog) or by asking your contacts to support your cause. I am not interested in trustees who say they are doing enough by giving their time. How can you ask others to give if you are not giving yourself?

I am sure there are loads of things I have missed out, and this is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to trusteeship. you can get that elsewhere. The Charity Commission and NCVO websites are a good place to start. But hopefully there is something here that will help you have a better understanding of what makes a great trustee. Feel free to comment.

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