How trustees can help out in hard times

By Clare Yeowart 11 February 2011

We all know that public spending cuts are having a huge impact on charities and that even big, well-respected organisations like Fairbridge are having to re-consider their options in order to keep the lights on. Charity managers face the grim reality every day as they grapple with budgets and search for cost savings. But what about charities’ trustees – should they stay at arm’s length or roll up their sleeves and get more involved?

The role of trustees in challenging times was the subject of a seminar that NPC ran with The Clothworkers’ Company earlier this week. There was lots of discussion about what trustees should be doing, from the importance of good communication to strategies for managing financial risks and the broader need for more philanthropy. strategies for keeping on top of developments and managing financial risks to trustees’ role in fundraising and the need for more philanthropy. But a key theme that came up again and again was the importance of ‘engagement’. Participants agreed that trustees need to be fully up to speed with what is going on so that they can support management and take responsibility for the tough decisions that many charities are having to make.

Now is an important time for trustees to be reviewing whether they are really engaged in their charities’ work. I’ve come across some really impressive examples of charities whose trustees have upped their game over the last few months and taken a more hands-on role – for instance, helping to steer their charity through tricky contract negotiations with local authorities. NPC’s own trustees have also recently looked at new ways to engage with staff , including things like setting aside time in board meetings for informal discussions with staff, prioritising attendance at more of our events, and greater coordination of support to fundraising and business development efforts.

What is your board doing to stay engaged, and has the way it works changed as a result of the downturn? As part of our ongoing work on trusteeship, we’re looking for case studies of good practice and we’d love to hear your stories.

NPC and The Clothworkers’ Company are running two further seminars for charity trustees: What do trustees need to know about collaboration and mergers?’ (7 March) and ‘How well your board is working?’ (4 April). Like last year, we will also publish a paper in the summer, drawing out the key themes from these discussions. For further information, please visit our website or contact Clare Yeowart.