Love them or hate them…

04/04/2011

Despite my (almost four) years of acting for charities, it still never ceases to amaze me quite how many charities seem to be trying to get along without trustees.

I don’t mean the charities out there without trustees, although they do exist. I mean the charities that, nominally, have trustees, but some or all of those trustees are so disengaged that they may as well not exist.

Charity trustees have many duties and responsibilities, but chiefly their role is to direct the affairs of the charity, and ensure that it acts in pursuance of its Objects, with the aim of delivering these for the public benefit. It is not possible to do this from a distance!

Unfortunately, the nature of voluntary work like charity trusteeship is such that it can easily get squeezed out by other important family or work commitments. If one charity trustee is too busy to be involved for a short period, but others can step in to fill the gap temporarily, a lapse of this sort is likely not to be disastrous. However, it is not something that can be tolerated in the long term.

If a charity trustee is suffering from a prolonged period of ill health, or lack of interest, it can sometimes be best for a fellow trustee to take the absentee trustee to one side and suggest that he or she has a bit of a break from the trusteeship until he or she has the time, energy or inclination involve him or herself more fully in managing the charity.

Charity trustees who feel they may have slipped into bad habits of absenteeism, or charity trustees who have colleagues who may have slipped into such bad habits, may find the information provided by the publication ‘Good Governance – A Code for the Voluntary and Community Sector’ (prepared by The Code Founding Group) helpful. It is on the Charity Commission website here.

Sensibly, the first principle is that an effective board will provide good governance and leadership by understanding their role.

Many charity trustees are aware of their basic legal responsibilities, in terms of providing reports and accounts to the Charity Commission / Companies House / the CIC Regulator / HMRC, and their responsibilities to safeguard the assets of the charity, and to seek to further the Objects of the charity.

However, a considerable number seem to forget that they are also are responsible for setting the vision of the organisation, overseeing its work, and managing and supporting any staff and volunteers.

This last area of managing staff can be a particular minefield. All too frequently, charity trustees can delegate duties and powers to paid staff, and then forget that they retain overall supervision for the exercise of those duties and powers.

Of course, the real problems start when the staff forget that their duties and powers are only delegated and not absolute, and try to run the charity while the trustees take a back seat. This is bad news for all concerned.

The trustees retain their responsibilities, and possibly incur liabilities, while exercising no actual control over the management of the charity. Meanwhile, the staff are quasi-trustees, as they have control of the day-to-day management of the charity, and as such as also are potentially exposing themselves to liabilities, but often believe that the trustees still have ultimate responsibility for actions they, as staff, carry out on behalf of the charity.

A good induction pack and training can help remind trustees of their responsibilities, and I would certainly recommend at least one training session per year for trustees. The cost of training, provided it is reasonable, is a legitimate expense of the charity.

However, a number of organisations offer this kind of training for free – for example, the Cambridge Council for Voluntary Service runs governance workshops which are free to member organisations. In addition, there are now online resources. So, there’s no excuse for charity trustees to plead ignorance of their role!

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