Advice on being the trustee of a charity

Steve Sampson, charities specialist at Ashdown Hurrey
Steve Sampson, charities specialist at Ashdown Hurrey

I have been asked to be a trustee of a local charity. What is involved?

Answer: Trustees are individuals who are legally responsible for the overall management and decision-making in a charity. They are responsible for the direction and performance of the charity and must act in its best interests. Trustees are usually volunteers and can only be paid in exceptional circumstances which normally needs Charity Commission approval. You should be entitled to claim your bona fide expenses, subject to the charity’s governing document. In larger organisations, trustees will delegate work to the staff within the charity; however, they do not lose their ultimate responsibility for those matters.

It can be a challenging role and if something goes wrong with the charity’s work or finances, the trustees will be responsible, both legally and financially. It is worth taking time to understand the duties and responsibilities linked to the role and to find out any specific situations at the organisation which may cause concern. Charities can take out insurance policies to offer trustees a level of indemnity and the Charity Commission offers guidance on this in leaflet CC49.

The Charity Commission provides guidance on who can be a trustee and, in general, most people over the age of 18 can accept such a role. Individuals who are disqualified as company directors and those who have been convicted of an offence involving dishonesty or deception cannot usually become a trustee. A charity may ask you to sign a declaration confirming that you are eligible to be a trustee.

To assist the charity, trustees should have different skills and experience so that there is a rounded board of trustees. Some individuals will have specific business or professional skills and others, soft skills, such as problem solving or facilitating. Different experiences and perspectives will help to form a strong board of trustees; individuals are not expected to be experts in every area. They are, however, expected to use reasonable care in their role as trustees, applying their skills and experience and involving professionals where needed. The Charity Commission will offer information and advice on both best practice and legal requirements.

Before becoming a trustee, I suggest you make sure that you find out as much as you can about the charity. Meet the other trustees and ask them about the charity’s activities, finances and their experiences. It can also be helpful to visit the charity and meet the staff and, where relevant, the service users. You should make sure that you are fully aware of a trustee’s legal and financial liabilities. The Charity Commission website is a good source for this information (www.gov.uk/government/organisations/charity-commission). Leaflet CC30 “Finding New Trustees” and CC3 “The Essential Trustee” will answer most of your questions.

Charities struggle to recruit trustees and if you want to get involved, I suggest that you do the necessary research. It could be the best decision you make, as being involved with the voluntary sector can be very rewarding.

For further assistance with this matter, please contact our charities specialist, Steve Sampson, on 01424 720222 or charities@ashdownhurrey.co.uk.