More than one million people are trustees of charities in the UK. Some might not be called a trustee or even know they are one: they might be members of a management board, executive members, or governors or have some other title. Regardless of title, if someone is a member of the board or committee with overall responsibility for a charity they are a trustee.
Although charities generally report that recruiting trustees is becoming increasingly difficult, it is likely that the traditional word-of-mouth selection process (thus largely perpetuating generally white, middle-class, male trustees) needs to change. There also needs to be clear management lines drawn between what are the responsibilities of trustees and those of the director or chief executive.
Trustees are responsible for the direction and performance of the charity. Fundamentally, trustees need to be sure the charity is meeting the needs of those it was set up to help in accordance with the articles of governance. If the charity is small with few or no paid staff trustees could be involved directly in its day-to-day running. In a larger charity, staff usually carry out the work, with trustees monitoring and controlling their activities.
But recently a lot of flak has been flying around the ears of trustees. One commentator described them as “incompetent groups of competent people” because there was no established model for their work. Stephen Bubb, head of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, last December declared that research had shown 68 per cent of trustee appointments were made through word of mouth. Most trustees were indeed white, middle-class men, which Bubb said was “unacceptable” in a sector aiming for diversity.
Here, the chief executive of a large national charity and the director of a small national charity talk about the realities of working with trustees.
John Belcher, chief executive of housing charity Anchor Trust
The relationship between our non-executive directors and our executives is of crucial importance to each of Anchor Trust’s housing, care and support businesses. This is because we operate in a competitive business environment where we need to be as market-focused as any for-profit organisation if we are to deliver on our charitable objectives for older people.
Our board of seven trustees and two executive directors, including myself, draws together the full range of skills we need to ensure we can consistently provide the range and quality of services that our customers expect.
Each non-executive brings a set of skills, competencies and experience that complements the abilities of their colleagues and gives the board a mix of perspectives and vision.
Making a success of our housing schemes, residential homes and front-line care branches requires an effective working relationship with our senior managers. Therefore, as well as providing the briefings and reports for the board to make effective decisions, executives regularly meet trustees informally to ensure mutual understanding of the problems and successes of the organisation.
Given the leadership function our trustees fulfil and their critical role in ensuring strong governance, Anchor is clear that word-of-mouth recruitment of new members is inadequate. Instead, our chair oversees a rigorous selection procedure involving specialist recruitment consultants and national advertising.
One benefit of achieving the right relationship between board and executives is the confidence and strength an organisation derives from its clarity of purpose. In this way the leadership provided by the board can cascade through the organisation’s management structure and ensure the whole organisation moves forward.
To help this happen, senior managers regularly brief the board in person. And our trustees visit our schemes, care homes, branches and home improvement agencies throughout the country to develop their insight into the challenges our services face.
These activities not only increase each board member’s understanding of the organisation but play an important role in developing the awareness of our staff of the leadership provided by trustees. In an organisation the size of Anchor, with 9,000 staff working across England, the personal communication these visits allow plays an important part in reinforcing our values and vision for the future.
Kathryn Stone, director at learning difficulties charity Voice UK
Like many charities and voluntary organisations, we have a wealth of experience among our trustees. I am always struck by the commitment shown by them and by their continued support for us through difficult times. Last year, funding prospects were looking grim. During this time trustees were individually very supportive and pulled out all the stops to raise more funds and promote our work. Thankfully, their efforts paid off.
I was pleased when one trustee cut a swathe through the etiquette of asking for more money and demanded of a central government funder, “Well, are we getting the money or not?”. This time the method worked, although as a long-term funding strategy it has limitations!
There are five trustees meetings a year, with sub-committee meetings and phone conferences in between. We also meet individual trustees to fill in funding applications, ask for their expertise on specific projects and so on. Meetings are crucial to exchanging information and ideas.
The relationship between the chair and the director (or chief executive) is crucial. Directors have a responsibility to manage the organisation and be accountable to it. I know of organisations where the relationship between the two roles is positive, productive and useful; others where it is less so. For me the key is information and honesty. Unless the chair and other trustees know what is being done in the charity’s name they cannot be expected to support it.
- Make sure you have clearly defined boundaries so everyone knows what is expected and what is not.
- Treat the recruitment of trustees as importantly as you would for employees.
- Have a clear model of work for your trustees as a group.
- If one of your trustees or employees knows someone who is willing and is competent, why shop around?
- If “professional” trustees, whose background makes them a source of professional support, want to interfere, let them – it goes with the territory.