Richard Hunt

Richard Hunt

Head of Customer & Lending, CAF Bank

Charities Aid Foundation

Best practice for being a good trustee

Good governance should be at the top of every charity agenda. It’s critical to success for your organisation and for the support of your beneficiaries. Some trustee responsibilities are defined by law, while others in guidance from the government and sector bodies. Your first point of call for clarity on responsibilities should be the Charity Commission.

But in order to fulfil your responsibilities, there are some good behaviour practices trustees should display. Here are a few that can help you be an effective trustee and achieve your organisation’s goals.

Be a critical friend  – don’t just say ‘yes’

Avoid being a people pleaser and agreeing to all plans and ideas without proper evaluation. An effective trustee will challenge with good intent.

Your charity’s team need to know the board are in their corner, but a good trustee will achieve the right mix of support and challenge, and won’t be afraid to ask difficult and probing questions when the situation demands.

Simply saying ‘yes’ doesn’t support the team, it leaves them exposed without the insight and debate to make sure the right decision is made. Make sure you ask about the implications, risks and resources required for any proposed plans. By acting as a critical friend to your charity’s team, you can ensure the thinking behind big decisions is robust enough to determine a successful outcome.

Be open to feedback and challenge – welcome discussions

A good trustee will be able to listen to other board members, staff and the people the charity supports, and take their voices on board. While able to give challenge, they should also be willing to take on board critique themselves and be open to changing their views if the need arises. Building relationships with fellow trustees and other members will help make sure that feedback can be delivered in a supportive way.

Use board meetings effectively – don’t sweat the small stuff

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality suggests that the time spent on any agenda item will be in inverse proportion to its cost and importance, on the basis that smaller matters are less intimidating to deal with than complex ones. Most boards slip into this mode at times despite the fact the board exists to address those critical issues that are central to the success of the charity.

One way to avoid this is by taking a firm grasp on the agenda. Every item contending for board attention should face the following questions:

  • Is this a governance issue (as opposed to a management issue)?
  • Does it have policy or strategy implications?
  • Is it a priority for board time?

A further tool useful here is to organise your agenda items using four categories:

  • For information
  • For approval
  • For discussion
  • For decision

If you find that your agenda is dominated by which colour to paint the walls rather than reviewing the budget, then you may wish to relook at the agenda.

Focus on the bigger picture – make sure you are looking outward, not inward

An effective board makes time and space to help the charity come up for air and thinks about the future as well as the now. The board needs time to work with the charity’s team on making sense of these, in order that the charity can stay three steps ahead.

An away day is a tried and tested way of creating space for the board to remove themselves from day-to-day governance concerns and tackle some of the more fundamental questions that often don’t get covered in regular board meetings. Issues like the impact of future policy changes, learnings from last year’s work, the directions other charities are going, and staying on-mission. An external facilitator can lead the day to free up the board and charity’s team, allowing them to focus on contributing to, rather than running, the meeting.

Share the financial responsibilities – you know more than you think

Too often the section on finances is left to the treasurer but this can lead to real weakness and those with financial experience feeling unsupported. It is important that all members of the board understand the financial position of the organisation, it’s aims and objectives. This becomes really crucial when you are making big decisions or there are challenges.

Everyone has different levels of confidence when discussing finances, but the core principles of understanding income and expenditure translate from personal experience. Some of the key questions that you might be thinking about are:

  • Cash levels – both now and predicted
  • Debtors – those people who owe funds to your organisation
  • Creditors – those people who your organisation owes money to

Be proactive with your support

A good trustee will be generous with their support and willingly offer their own skills, expertise and networks. Consider how you could draw on your professional, personal or previous volunteering experience to ensure different points of view and insights are included in discussions. If you don’t have a particular solution or skill, use your network to find someone who does. It’s also important to be committed to self-development, particularly around governance, finance and your understanding of the charity’s sector and operating environment.

In short, successful boards ask powerful questions, cheer and challenge in equal measure, and use their insight to think about the big picture for the future. Does that sound like your board? If not, now might just be the perfect opportunity to change it.

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