I’ve worked with many different charities, of all sizes, covering a variety of causes. The structure of most charities doesn’t vary too much; however, every trustee on every board has been unique. Given that the very nature of a human being is to be individual, this has made for some interesting cultures and approaches!
I’m not here to define the correct amount of intervention and support a board of trustees should give the charity it represents. Nor am I here to say that boundaries between the two entities are black and white—it’s different for every charity, depending on who is in charge, the experience/skills they have, the time the trustees have available, their experience…and a hundred other things.
All that said, I have seen a lot of organisations in which the governance and structure could have been improved. Usually, the complaints I hear are at either end of the rainbow, from ‘the trustees don’t really do much’ to ‘the trustees are overbearing micro-managers that are stifling progress’. The ideal would be somewhere in the middle, but we don’t live in an ideal world.
For some trustees, the restraint to simply digest and react to reports and information during regular meetings (or any other time, if consulted) is not there. An active interest is one thing, but I’ve seen charities completely ruled by their chair or a vocal, bullish member of its board who are omnipresent and forever hovering over managers’ shoulders. I’ve also seen trustees push particular agendas that could be seen as a compromise or conflict of their position if the Charity Commission was to ever find out. Altruism is not requisite for every trustee, unfortunately, and some trustees seem set on using their privileged positions to solely fuel their career prospects.
I’ve seen financial abuse in some charities, where members of staff who were allowed too much control almost fleeced the organisations of their funds.
I’ve worked with other charities where the day-to-day operations fall on one or two pairs of shoulders. Though this is common, in a couple of instances, a specific phone call from a trustee or an extra pair of hands would have made a huge impact on what the charity was trying to achieve, yet their requests fell on deaf ears. In some instances, there are trustees on boards that the respective charities have never even seen, because they fail to turn up to every scheduled meeting, despite continual invites.
None of these situations are healthy, and they can actually prevent charitable organisations from fulfilling their missions.
It’s an important role, being a trustee of a charity, and one that should be given plenty of thought. It requires a time commitment and a shared ethos that the success of the charity, and the support of its beneficiaries, come before any vested interest of its staff and/or trustees. If these responsibilities can’t be respected, the potential board member should look for another hobby or pastime.
I realise that this may be the wrong time to be so brutal about the requirements of a trustee when many charities are struggling to attract volunteers into their organisations. However, I’m sure they would rather have someone who is an asset to their charity than individuals who drain the life out of it and bring additional challenges they neither want nor need.
It’s appropriate that staff members (particularly those in management) aren’t trustees and vice versa. It represents a conflict and restricts their view somewhat, if you have someone steering the ship who also deals with the inconsequential issues and minutiae that the charity’s daily operations may bring.
Being a trustee can be incredibly rewarding, and many charities would be glad of more diversity on their boards—not just in terms of background and experience, but also culture, age and gender. Whilst ‘too many cooks can spoil the broth’, so to speak, having no one to help the charity progress could prove just as damaging. If you’re passionate about a certain cause and could spare a few hours a month, consider sharing your skills, knowledge and experience with a local charity.