Trustees oversee the management and administration of a charity. They play a very important role in ensuring that their charity has a clear strategy, that its work and its goals are in line with its vision.

Trustees work collectively as a ‘board’. Together, they have legal responsibility for the charity and as such, they must ensure that the charity complies with the law.

They safeguard the charity’s assets – both physical assets, including property, and intangible ones, such as its reputation – ensuring that they are used well and that the charity is run sustainably.

Trustees don’t usually do the day-to-day running of the charity – they delegate this to the staff, led by the Chief Executive. Instead, they play the role of ‘critical friend’ to the Chief Executive by giving support and by challenging – in a supportive way – to help them manage effectively. However, in smaller charities with few staff, trustees may take hands-on roles too.

Being a trustee can be very rewarding. Trustees have the chance to support and shape the work and strategic direction of an organisation, making a significant difference to a cause that matters to them.  It is also a great way to get involved in a community or find out more about the not-for-profit sector.

Being a trustee offers the opportunity for professional development and the chance to gain experience of strategy and leadership. It provides the experience of being a non-executive director, such as setting a strategic vision, influencing and negotiation and managing risk. For those trustees who already have significant experience in these areas it can be stimulating to use it in a different and potentially challenging context. Trustees often say that being a board member has been one the richest sources of learning in their professional lives.

Trustees are part of a team and will have the opportunity to apply their unique skills and experience while learning from others. Working closely with a passionate team of people who have different perspectives is often one of the most enjoyable aspects of the role.

Almost anyone become a trustee.

Trustees come from all walks of life – what they have in common is a desire to create positive change in society. Some are retired or not working, but many work full- or part-time. Most find trusteeship fits conveniently around work, home and other commitments

Charities benefit from having trustees with different skills, experiences and perspectives because a diverse board of trustees can make well-rounded decisions. Each charity will also want a board that reflects the people and communities it serves, to help it be as effective as possible. Many people will have something to offer as a trustee, including those who care passionately about the work of the charity and who have a range of life experiences.

Most people over the age of 18 can become trustees, but a few will not be eligible (for example if they have been disqualified as a company director). The Charity Commission provides guidance on who can’t be a trustee.

The skills and experience that a charity will look for in a trustee will vary, but usually depend on:

  • The skills and experience that the charity’s existing trustees have and the gaps that they have identified on the board.
  • The charity’s purpose and what they want to achieve over the next few years.

Charities sometimes look for people with specific professional expertise – for example in finance, marketing, legal or human resources. Sometimes they want someone with expertise in their cause, or with first-hand experience of the issues they focus on.

At other times, charities may be seeking people who can work at a strategic level and contribute more broadly

The Charity Commission sets out six main duties for trustees, which are, in brief:

  • Ensure the charity is carrying out its purpose for the public benefit.
  • Comply with the charity’s governing document and the law.
  • Act in the charity’s best interests.
  • Manage the charity’s resources responsibly.
  • Act with reasonable care and skill.
  • Ensure the charity is accountable.

However, each organisation is different. For example, if a charity is also a company limited by guarantee, then the liabilities of a trustee are different. This is an important question to ask the charity before you make any commitment.

Trustees are not expected to be experts in every area but they are expected to use reasonable care in applying their skills and experience, and to involve professionals – including lawyers – where needed.

For information and advice on trusteeship best practice and legal requirements, read the Charity Commission’s guidance.

Trustees need to be realistic about how much time they can commit and when, to the potential role. The charity’s needs are likely to be made up of a range of activities that may occur at different times of the day and vary across the year. Questions which need to be asked should include:

  • How many trustee meetings are there each year?
  • How long are the meetings, where and at what time of day?
  • Are trustees expected to serve on committees?
  • What opportunities are there to spend time with the organisation observing its work, both when joining and on an ongoing basis?
  • What contact is there in between trustee meetings and how does this usually take place?
  • Are there any one-off events or annual occasions that trustees are expected, or will have the opportunity, to attend?
  • What induction and training will the organisation provide, and how much time will that take?

When a potential trustee sees a vacancy that they are interested in, they can contact the charity to ask questions before formally applying, so that they can find out if the role is a good match for their skills and interests. Also, before they apply for any role, they should do their research by visiting the organisation’s website and reading its entry on the Charity Commission’s website.

They can ask to meet or speak with a senior staff member and/or the Chair of the organisation as part of the process and some of the other trustees as well, either before or after an application is submitted. If they are still unsure, they can also ask to attend a board meeting.

Some charities have a formal recruitment process when appointing trustees while others opt for informal meetings.

Becoming a trustee is a significant commitment, so it is important that a potential trustee makes sure that they know why they want to take on a role and what is expected of them before they say yes (or no).

Points which potential trustees needs to consider:

  • Do they feel inspired by the organisation and want to be involved?
  • Is the organisation clear about what it does and what it is seeking from a potential new trustee?
  • Have they been provided with the information they want/need about the organisation and the way the board works?
  • Have they met the other trustees? They are joining a team, so they need to want to work with them.
  • Have they met any of the staff or volunteers and do they want/feel able to support them?
  • Is there a good relationship between the board and the executive?
  • How much time do they expect to spend working as a trustee and can they make that commitment?
  • Are their skills and experience appropriate and do they feel they will be valued?
  • What induction and training will the organisation provide?
  • Will expenses be reimbursed? Which ones? (For example, the cost of travel to meetings.)
  • Is their other commitments – work, home and leisure – going to allow them to undertake this commitment?
  • What is the organisation’s financial position? The charity’s accounts and annual report for the last five years can be found on the Charity Commission’s website.
  • Are they able and willing to complete the legal and security checks required to join the board of this organisation, including providing references and completing security checks?