Charity Commission Guidance For Trustees - What Makes A Good Trustee Guide

A simple , practical guide on what makes a good trustee with links to the key Charity Commission Guidance for trustees

Charity Commission Guidance For Trustees - What Makes A Good Trustee Guide

This guide on what makes a good trustee is what I've learned in 25 years as a charity chair, board mentor and trustee in 20 simple steps.  Basically, the Charity Commission guidance for trustees on how to be a good trustee, but simpler and much more practical.

Charity Commission Guidance for Trustees

The Charity Commission guidance for trustees covers a huge range of areas and can overwhelming.  The starting point for should always be Charity Commission CC3 (The Essential Trustee - What's Involved).  There are also the Commission's 5 min guides for trustees.  You'll find links to all of these here.  Here are a couple of others to give you an idea of the kind of material they produce.

OSCR (Scotland) and CCNI (Ireland) produce the own guidance for charity trustees, which differs but is usually fairly similar.  My advice below works for any charity trustee.

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There are 400k charities in the UK and they require a broad range of skills, not just professional ones like accounting and law.  You can find the Charity Commission guidance for trustees in CC3 but detailed below is what I think makes a good trustee.

Choose Your Charity Wisely

With an estimated 400,000 UK charities, 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.

Join The Charity Team Well

You should be given relevant core documents on joining, such as the governing document, strategic plan, code of conduct, last trustee 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, if you have one, the CEO/manager. 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.

Set Boundaries

Explain what it is you’re good at and enjoy, how much time you will be able to commit to your charity 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’.


Being a trustee should be fun, but it's not a game, because your beneficiaries, staff and other stakeholders will be relying on you to govern the charity well.  To be a good trustee, you don't necessarily need specialist skills, but you do need commitment, generosity of spirit and a willingness to ask questions.

Good Trustees Think Strategically

People are often passionate about the services being delivered, which is great, and hearing about the good work being done is always interesting. However, except in very small charities, the trustee Board usually delegates running the charity to the CEO/manager 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.  An if you're not doing it, who is?

Keep Up-to-Date

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.

Advocate For Their Charity

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.

And Support Their Charity's Fundraising

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 trustee board responsibility, so make sure you're up to speed on the guidance issued: CC20 is a good starting point.  Here's a guide to that, plus 20 fundraising ideas you can use with your own trustees.

Good Trustees Prepare For Board Meetings

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.

Don't Have a Personal Agenda

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.

Speak Up Wisely

Positively challenge the CEO and fellow trustees. 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.

And Ask the Questions that Need to Be Asked

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.

Good Charity Trustees Are Action Focussed

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’.

Don't Blame People

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.

Act Collectively As A Trustee Board

Trustees 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.

Value Each Other

If another trustee 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.

And Support Each Other

If you think that a trustee 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.

Good Trustees Share Their Own Skills/Experience

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.

Develop Their Trustee Skills/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.  This CEF resource gives you lots of ideas and links to free support and training.

Say Thank You

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.

And Apologise

Be slow to take offence and quick to apologise, always.

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What is Charity Commission CC3 - the Essential Trustee?  CC3 is the key Charity Commission For England & Wales guidance that charity trustees must be aware of and details their 6 main responsibilities.
What is the role of a charity trustee? The role and 6 main responsibilities of a charity trustee are to ensure your charity carries out its purposes for the public benefit, comply with your charity’s governing document and the law, act in its best interests, manage your charity’s resources responsibly, act with reasonable care and skill and ensure your charity is accountable.
How long do charity trustees serve? The length of a charity trustee appointment will be in your constitution but, in general, many charities opt for 3 years, with the option to reappoint.
Can a trustee resign at any time? Yes, a charity trustee does not have to serve for their period of appointment and may resign at any time.
How do I remove a trustee from a charity? If you need to dismiss a trustee, the board and the charity must follow the rules set out in your governing document. Trustees may be dismissed through a no-confidence process, as long as this is part of your rules.
Can trustees be paid for their time? Generally, charity trustees are unpaid volunteers who may be paid expenses.  It is possible to pay trustees for services provided but usually requires Commission approval and it would be unusual to pay a trustee for simply being a trustee.
What is the minimum age to be a charity trustee? You must be at least 16 years old to be a trustee of a charity that is a company or a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO), or at least 18 to be a trustee of any other charity.
What is a trustee conflict of interest? There are 2 common types of conflict of interest: Financial conflicts - when a trustee, or person or organisation connected to them, could get money or something else of value from a trustee decision. Loyalty conflicts - other reasons, a board member might not be able to make decisions that are best for the charity.
How to manage a charity conflict of interest? To manage a conflict of interest you must follow your governing document but usually, the individual should be excluded from all discussions and this and the discussion details recorded in the minutes.
What is a fit and proper person? Charities that want to claim UK tax reliefs and exemptions must meet the Finance Act 2010 requirement that all of the charity’s managers (including trustees) to be ‘fit and proper persons’.
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