Trustees mix it up

By Jessica Nicholls 3 July 2013

Monday’s seminar for trustees of small charities had its unexpected moments: a trustee-inspired adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s If and use of the phrase ‘the game of love’ included. But with attendees from all corners of the charity sector, from organisations dealing with issues including women’s rights, offending, disability and homelessness, it was bound to be a diverse conversation. The event featured advice from three speakers, supported by valuable contributions from the floor.

Whatever the size or shape of a charity, the basic responsibilities of a trustee remain the same: to monitor the charity’s progress and achievements, to oversee the finances and to keep it legal. But the day-to-day realities of being the trustee of a small charity can be very different from those of larger organisations. In essence, the role is much more fluid and often requires additional hands-on engagement.

Trustee roles can vary enormously. Boards require a mix of skills and experience; from marketing and fundraising, to legal and public policy knowledge, and experience developing new services. In small charities, trustees can find that they are the only person in the organisation with a particular skill, so they may have to roll up their sleeves and muck in more with the day-to-day practicalities.

Many attendees at our seminar felt  that they could really add value by getting involved beyond the traditional strategic direction role of the board. But this wasn’t without warning. A strong theme of the afternoon was balancing the tension between strategic and operational duties, and getting the right level of involvement. Human relationships are crucial in setting the boundaries. The board meeting is the set piece, but the chair and CEO should surface any tensions between meetings to create a strong feedback loop and minimise surprises on the day. Annual strategic days that involve both trustees and directors can be a good way to cement relationships, and other events that enable trustees to get to know the staff. Trustees are there to make suggestions—but new ideas can also carry a weight, so it’s important to think about what the consequences might be for the staff. You’ll know how far to go if you communicate effectively and get to know what kind of support they need.

One of our speakers emphasised the need to be aware of where the lead is coming from. For example, the priority for a trustee of a staff-led, as opposed to trustee-led, organisation might be to use their various networks and act as an ambassador. To be able to promote the work accurately and well, it is the responsibility of staff to provide trustees with good information. The role of a trustee can take on multiple slants, and this will inform how the board—and the individuals on it—should conduct itself, but the relationship between trustee and staff team remains central.

Diversity was also a key issue, in terms of ethnicity, gender and age, but also skill sets. Trustees can play a valuable role in plugging skill gaps, but they don’t have to fill them all. It’s possible to expand the advisory set without adding to the board, for example, through smaller advisory groups, sub-committees or local boards. Of course, given the new commissioning landscape, questions around collaboration—seeking strength in numbers—and managing and planning for risk also cropped up. We’ve covered both issues in more detail at previous events.

Every charity is unique—for smaller charities, individuality is often at the heart of their existence. The number of very specialist charities in the room might have produced an unwieldy set of conversations, but I was surprised by just how many commonalities there seemed to be. As one of our speakers reminded us: there is a tremendous resource amongst ourselves— you might find a solution just by talking.