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What does being a charity trustee entail?

Funders make a big deal about charities having trustees with ‘lived experience’. It’s a fair aspiration, given that those who have gone through the issue the cause aims to tackle are likely to understand it better and feel more passionate about respective solutions.

Many charities also desire trustees that have certain skillsets on their board, to help plug any skills gaps between volunteers and paid staff. They also seek people who can work with the other members of the board to offer strong leadership and governance of the organisation—which requires people with a certain level of knowledge and experience.

That said, to find a trustee that a) has the time to support the charity on its board, that b) has lived experience of the issue at hand, and that also has c) high-level organisational, financial or management skills is a big ask. Retirees typically take up places on trustee boards, as they’re the most likely to have time on their hands and the relevant life/career experience; however, recent statistics show that the cost-of-living crisis has forced a good number of retirees back into the workplace. Charities may therefore find increasingly slim pickings when recruiting board members.

I’ve seen people panic at being asked to be a trustee of a charity. What will be asked of me? Will I be able to deliver what they need? Will it affect my benefit payments, my caring commitments, my relationships, my sanity? Will I have targets, like in a job? Will I be able to give the charity enough of my time?

Much of their panic could be down to a fear of the unknown, a nervousness concerning what they’d be required to do. Of course, the role of trustee is an important one that should warrant a great deal of thought. At the same time, such a position should give you nothing to fear, and given that it’s voluntary, it’s one you can easily stop if you don’t feel it’s right for you.

So, what does being a charity trustee entail?

Regular meetings

Charity Meeting Room

Sometimes, it may seem as if you’ve barely blinked since you last got together with your fellow trustees to discuss items of relevance. These meetings are not designed to be a waste of everyone’s time, as you never know what will be on the agenda. Even if everything is ticking along nicely and it felt as if your meeting simply went through the motions (no pun intended), this is still of value to the organisation. In the majority of charities, meetings are recorded and minutes are taken, and even if they don’t set the world alight, regular trustee meetings demonstrate that the organisation has integrity, governance and consistency.

Giving opinions

Trustees enjoy a level of objectivity that staff within the charity may not have. For instance, it’s easier for the board to be logical about a project/decision, as they’re not in front of the cause’s beneficiaries all the time. Most trustees also bring valuable knowledge and experience from specific sectors and positions, which can help them find effective solutions to problems. Trustees would be expected to share their opinions on matters raised in meetings—these will range from the governance of the charity, dealing with complaints, ensuring healthy and robust financial practices, keeping the charity accountable and steering it towards its long-term aims, as well as ensuring it meets all its legal and filing responsibilities.

Being an ambassador

This just means maximising any opportunity to give the charity a plug or a mention, to share content amongst your network, and possibly represent the charity at events. Typically, trustees agree to be on a charity’s board because they’re invested and passionate about the work the organisation does. Shouting about the cause, therefore, is often an automatic reaction.

It can be incredibly fulfilling, being a trustee, knowing that you’re helping others to lead better lives. Putting skills you may hold to very good use. Donating some of your time each month to a worthy cause. Trustees are unpaid workers; however, most organisations reimburse any out of pocket expenses their trustees may incur as they conduct their role.

You don’t have to be retired to want to give back in this way…that older people tend to be charity trustees is more situational than anything. Charities would give their right arm for more diverse boards (involving students, young parents, working professionals, etc.), as this would enrich the organisation’s diversity and bring different skills to the table than the norm.

It’s difficult to say how much of a time commitment a trustee would be expected to give, as each charity is different. I would expect that, typically, trustees would give just a few hours of their time each month to the cause they choose to support.

In return for their service, and as well as the feeling of fulfilment I mentioned, being a trustee means meeting new people and adding skills and experience to their C.V. as a result of their role. A win/win for all involved.

Why not give it a try?


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