people in a meeting

Bills, skills and chills

By Guest contributor 17 June 2013

By Alex Swallow, Chief Executive of the Small Charities Coalition/Charity Trustee Networks

At the start of Small Charity Week 2013, I’d like to address the topic of trustees of small charities, for the reason that—in addition to the tribulations that any Board may go through over time—trustees face an array of particular challenges. For simplicity, I will call these challenges: bills, skills and chills.

Bills. This refers to the fact that in the smallest charities, trustees will inevitably be involved in operational issues. Arguably, the ideal charity model is one in which trustees deal with governance and staff with operational issues. But if you have no staff, few staff or are a new organisation, your trustees may well have to step in and help keep the charity solvent and working properly. Of course, in larger charities, trustees will hopefully not have to deal directly with issues like a leaking roof or an unpaid electricity bill.

Skills. A small charity is often unlikely to have staff with all the skills needed to carry out the organisation’s work successfully. In a competitive environment fuelled by a recession, it is unrealistic to expect a sole member of staff to be equally adept at providing services, marketing and evaluating them, raising money and networking all at once. This is where trustees can usefully be involved, either by providing direct expertise, by asking one of their contacts to help, or ultimately by helping to raise the money to bring additional staff into the organisation.

Chills. This is anything that might keep a trustee awake late at night. For trustees of smaller charities, a greater proportion of the burden of decision-making may well fall on their shoulders. It is they who will have the main responsibility to assess risk, set strategy and make the hard choices. In this environment it is essential that members of the Board trust one another (they don’t have to be best friends). It is also really important that they do seek external help, such as legal help, when a matter is outside their area of competency.

Despite these difficulties, being on the Board of a small charity can be extremely rewarding and can give you the chance to make a real difference to the lives of those in need. Small Charity Week is an opportunity to thank trustees for the difficult role that they manage to fill with humility, care and compassion.