Individuals give up their time to become a trustee, bringing with them experience from their own careers as well as contacts. However, what is it that makes a good trustee great and what makes a handful of trustees exceptional?
A charity’s success could be attributed to many things but key to any charity’s sustainability is a motivated, talented board of trustees to help shape strategy, oversee financial solvency, and ensure the organisation meets its legal and regulatory requirements.
Trustees often decide to join a charity’s board after a successful career, with the aim to give back to the community and make a difference with a cause that they feel passionately about. However, success in one field of work doesn’t necessary equate to success in a not-for-profit organisation. One of the best ways to become an exceptional trustee is to recognise that, whatever you have achieved to date, you still have a lot to learn. The essential duties of a trustee are outlined clearly by the Charity Commission and there are regular updates to the legal duties that you need to know. However, there are some less obvious, but still fundamental, duties that you should consider:
1) Recruitment is key
Who you have on the board of trustees will change the nature of the charity and it’s important not just to select likeminded people. There’s a need for diversity, not just because it’s fair, but because of the experience that a broader group of people can bring to any challenge. Consider the background, gender, age, race, sexuality and disability of the people on your board of trustees. Is there enough of a mix? Depending on the nature of the charity you work for, is there a trustee that has shared some of the same experiences as the community that you are supporting? Your strategies will be more effective if you can see more closely the issues of the individual beneficiaries.
One of the ways that a board of trustees becomes made up of people with too similar backgrounds, is when the selection process does not spread the net wide. Talk with your board about how new trustees are selected. Do you advertise available trustee roles and if you do, are you advertising in places that the widest group of people will see and are you making the response process accessible for all?
2) Don’t forget about fundraising!
I often come across trustee boards that consider fundraising outside their remit. This surprises me no end. Fundraising has to be everyone’s responsibility and those on the board need to recognise what they can do as part of the fundraising efforts. Many US charities insist, formally or informally, on a large financial donation before considering an individual to join the board. In the UK, we’re still reticent to talk so openly about trustees opening their own wallets. However, there should be no shyness about asking them to put their efforts into fundraising, whether that’s through making connections to corporate sponsors, helping innovate new fundraising streams or acting as a vocal ambassador in ways that draw in donations. Fundraising should be a point on every trustee board agenda. The world’s best trustees are the ones that can help tackle a charity’s ongoing need to raise money.
3) A charity’s engine is its culture
Culture is the reason that volunteers choose to go above and beyond, the reason that organisations decide to partner with you, and the magic that allows a small team to deliver way beyond what seems possible. Often there is a disconnect between a board of trustees and the executive team and, in turn, other staff or volunteers. There is naturally a division but it needn’t feel like a chasm or an ‘us and them’ situation. A charity’s culture should be articulated and everyone should be clear about your organisation’s guidelines on working practices, safeguarding staff and beneficiaries and ensuring a positive working environment. Times have changed and the need for employers to protect the mental and physical wellbeing of the people they work with has become a measure of its success.
There is training available for trustees, along with numerous online articles and insight. The first step to becoming an exceptional trustee is to recognise that you are in a complex and challenging position and everything you’ve learned to date will not be enough without an open-minded attitude to learn more, be better and strive to be exceptional.
Written by Michelle Wright, founder and CEO of Cause4