Trusteeship: The trials and tribulations of governing a small charity

By Esther Paterson 4 November 2011

On 31 March 2011, the chair of trustees of a tiny south London charity stood in his charity’s doorway. He stood there for ten minutes, keys in hand, trying to decide whether to lock up for good.

It was the financial year end and things weren’t looking good. The organisation only had two members of staff, and was perilously close to having none. One had just resigned, the other was threatened with redundancy, and there was a general feeling of hopelessness and lethargy among volunteers and trustees.

At this time, I had been on the board for a few months and was still getting to grips with how the whole thing worked. It wasn’t a particularly complicated charity, but nobody could really spell out its activities or aims very clearly. The treasurer had gone awol six months before, and there had been no management accounts for a year. The list goes on. This was a charity that had lost its way.

It is telling that neither I nor anyone else on the board knew that the chairman was wrestling with the decision of whether or not to shut up shop. Without decent leadership, the board was meandering from meeting to meeting, each month going over the minutes from the last in painful detail, without ever discussing anything new.

Even so, it was not a bad group of trustees. Between them, they had masses of experience, knowledge, enthusiasm and good will. They were just a bit tired and disillusioned, which had unfortunately led to complacency and neglect.

In many charities, this wouldn’t have mattered so much. Some trustee boards sit back and let their charity tick along nicely. They review papers, attend meetings, and have their say about strategy and direction, but they are removed from the mundane and everyday activities that keep an organisation functioning. But in a charity as small as my south London charity, if the board sits back and relaxes too much, it is not long before morale falters and activities ground to a halt.

A new start

Today, my charity looks very different from six months ago. We have interesting and productive board meetings, we see management accounts every two months, and we have funding to recruit a Director for the next three years. Staff and volunteers have a new sense of purpose, and I have replaced the previous chair of trustees. We have a vision, strategy and some concrete aims, and most importantly, our activities seem to be making a difference in local people’s lives.

So what changed? I think there are three key factors:

  • New trustees: We have managed to recruit some excellent new board members who have brought expertise, diversity and energy to the table.
  • A critical friend: We have received some stern words, strategic support, financial guidance and plenty of encouragement from a brilliant consultant who has given his time for free.
  • Time and effort: Evenings and weekends spent fundraising, putting together budgets, writing new policies and more are at last bearing fruit.

Thankfully, our old chair of trustees didn’t close the charity back in March. He locked up for the evening and was back the next day. Our little charity has gone from being a bit tired and hopeless to being full of energy, potential and vision. As one local person wrote to us:

‘You are all superbly optimistic and managing brilliantly and gaining loads of strength. My fingers are always crossed for [this charity] to continue to blossom slowly and surely, helping people always.’

On 15 December, NPC and the Clothworkers’ Company are holding a seminar for trustees of very small charities. 

This is the fifth in a series of blogs to mark Trustees’ Week, an annual event to showcase the great work that trustees do and highlight opportunities for people from all walks of life to get involved and make a difference. You can find out more about Trustees’ Week and about becoming a trustee here.