The Charity Commission guidance, the Essential Trustee summarises charity trustee responsibiities, duties and powers, but there's a lot more to being a good charity trustee than that. I put nearly 30 years of being a trustee, chair and board mentor into developing the free Charity Excellence Framework online toolkit. As part of that, here is a guide to 20 things which (in my experience) really good charity trustees do.
With more than 160,000 charities in England and Wales alone you’re spoiled for choice, so choose one whose mission you feel passionate about, and which is most likely to benefit from what you can offer. You’ll be a more effective board member and, not least, you’ll enjoy yourself a lot more.
You should be given relevant core documents on joining, such as the governing document, strategic plan, code of conduct, last board minutes and finance report. If you don’t receive these, ask for them. Other items you may wish to consider asking for might include the annual Board work plan, conflict of interest policy, trustee contact details/biographies, organisational wiring diagram and annual report. And if an induction programme isn’t offered, ask for that too. At the least, meet the chair and CEO. Help them to understand what you need from them to be an effective board member and ask them what you can do to support them in return.
Explain what it is you’re good at and enjoy, how much time you will be able to commit and how flexible you can be with this. And once you’re on board, being involved operationally can be very helpful, particularly if you have specialist knowledge or expertise, but act as a critical friend and do not cut across line management. On those occasions when I’ve been asked what should be done, I’ve said ‘it’s up to the CEO/director, not me, but if this was ultimately brought to my committee as a proposal, what I’d want to know would be a, b and c’.
People are often passionate about the services being delivered, which is great, and hearing about the good work being done is always interesting. However, the Board delegates running the organisation to the CEO and his/her team, so avoid discussion becoming embroiled in interesting, but operational detail – focus on the big picture. If your Board meets quarterly for 3 hours, that gives you a total of 12 hours a year in which to do everything; use that time wisely.
Ask for details of the charity’s social media platforms (eg Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram), and sign up for the e-mail newsletter, as these are very simple ways to keep up-to-date. Try and find time to attend at least some events.
Promote your charity's work. If you can do so actively, using your own networks, that’s great. Even if not, make sure you like and repost their social media into your own network.
Advocate for the Board getting fully behind the CEO in creating a culture in which everyone has a role to play in this. The Charity Commission, quite rightly, makes clear that fundraising is a board responsibility, so make sure you're up to speed on the guidance issued: CC20 is a good starting point. And ask the CEO how you can help personally. If you (or your company) can make a donation, that’s great and there are tax breaks to make this easy. However, if you can’t, that’s OK, as you can still help in other ways. For example, helping the CEO and his team access potential donors in your personal and/or professional networks, or pro bono support or commercial sponsorship from a company, or selling tickets/tables for events, or a personal fundraising challenge. It all helps.
Make notes on any points you wish to raise and notify the CEO/Chair in advance of anything you might wish to raise under ‘Any Other Business’, or at least do so at the beginning of the meeting. Reading the papers in advance, arriving in good time and only missing meetings in exceptional circumstances go without saying.
Having expertise in a particular area or a passion for a specific issue is welcome and helpful, insofar as this informs the Board’s work. However, unreasonably pushing an agenda on behalf of another organisation or yourself isn’t.
Positively challenge the CEO and fellow board members. If they’ve missed something, this’ll help improve the plan and, if not, everyone can be more confident it’ll work. Never state your opinion as fact and don’t make assumptions that are not substantiated by the evidence available. Be willing to challenge anyone who does or who is pushing a personal agenda. Ask open questions, such as what, how, when or who, as this helps people think through issues without being critical. For example, that’s a great idea x, but how will we fund it and what are the risks? Try to avoid why, as that can come across as critical, even when it isn’t meant to be.
If there’s an elephant in the room, pointing it out certainly won’t make you popular. However, you have a responsibility to act in the best interests of the charity and it may well be that there are others in the room who want to, but don’t feel able to. If you feel that you need to do so, raise it with the chair beforehand, if at all possible. Focussing on the problem and the future solution, rather than individuals and what they did (or didn’t do) can also help make this less challenging for everyone. You can find a list of key questions here.
If something has been discussed time and time again, but never resolved, be prepared to ask what it is that is preventing us from doing so. And don't be fobbed off by platitudes – ‘We’re wholly committed to promoting diversity’. Base the conversation around the facts and what specific action will be taken by when. For example, ‘I share your commitment and having a diverse board will make us more effective, so as everyone in the room is white, male and over 50, let’s discuss what steps are we going to take to ensure we become a more diverse board within the next 6 months and what targets should we set ourselves’.
Holding the CEO to account is a key role of the Board and may require asking challenging questions. However, don’t blame her/him (or anyone else) for problems that are genuinely outside his/her control and which could not reasonably have been prevented. Particularly, if the Board hasn't exactly covered itself in glory either.
Having differing points of view is good in a debate but, once a decision has been made, the Board must act collectively and everyone support it. You may be right that it isn’t the best decision, but continuing to oppose it will send conflicting messages to the team and undermine confidence, which would make the outcome even worse. Besides, it just might be you who’s wrong.
If someone holds a different opinion to yourself, recognise their right to do so and your right as well. If there are board members who are very young, very old, beneficiaries or whatever, their contribution won’t be the same as the lawyers, finance and business people, but always remember that’s different, not less than.
If you think that someone is having difficulty following an item, ask the presenter to explain it for you and, if they aren’t contributing to discussion, make a point of asking them for their thoughts.
If you have particular relevant expertise, be willing to share that with others. Even better, be prepared to offer to act as a mentor for a new board member who doesn’t yet have your experience.
Even if you’re a high flying corporate professional, you will almost certainly need to adjust your approach to working in a different culture and scale of organisation, or you won’t know the community you serve all that well, or you may have to learn about SORP, public benefit, the Charities Act, Trustees Act, etc. Money is usually tight, but there are regular charity e bulletins and social media groups that cost nothing to sign up for, and there are often low cost or even free breakfast briefings and seminars.
That’s not about always thanking everyone for everything, because that’s an empty gesture, but rather actively recognising good work when you see it. Be specific about what’s good. Not ‘that was great’, but rather ‘thank you, I appreciate just how hard the CEO and fundraising team worked in turning our ambitious idea into a practical plan that exceeded our expectations’. And it’s often the junior staff and/or those doing essential, but less exciting jobs who are least frequently thanked, so seek them out.
Be slow to take offence and quick to apologise, always.