Heart of the matter: Volunteering has benefits to charity and individual alike
Pat Armstrong OBE, Chief Executive of the Association of Chief Officers of Scottish Voluntary Organisations, tells Ryan Herman how CAs can get involved in their chosen causes – and the benefits to charity and individual alike.
There are currently more than 195,000 registered charities across England, Scotland and Wales, the highest figure this century, generating around £60bn in income. Well over a million people serve as trustees for those charities. Behind those figures, however, some third-sector organisations face serious financial challenges. Last December, the Charity Regulator for Scotland (OSCR) published a survey that revealed 79% of charities that receive donations and do fundraising reported a fall in income.
There are few better qualified to explain the current landscape than Pat Armstrong OBE, Chief Executive of the Association of Chief Officers of Scottish Voluntary Organisations and Vice-Chair of OSCR, and a doctoral research student looking at resilience in third-sector leadership. She explains: “The charity sector is a bit like a pyramid. Only 0.3% of charities have over £100m of income, but they hold about 23% of the sector’s income.
“So you have a small number of charities at the top of that pyramid holding lots of money, whereas the further down you go, the more charities there are – but they’re smaller, have less income, less turnover, fewer people, and they’re the ones rooted in local communities. Then there’s everything in between. It’s a real mix of a sector.”
While some charities quickly adapted to the pandemic, taking their operations online and receiving emergency funding, others have struggled; especially those that rely on staging local events, such as fetes, festivals or carnivals, to raise both awareness and funds. “The challenge for the year ahead is that emergency Covid funding has generally gone,” Armstrong says. “Depending on what happens with the economy, income and donations may be tight. Funders could be struggling too because they’ve given a lot of money over the last year. Like many other sectors, we’re facing a period of uncertainty.”
You may be passionate about a certain cause or your local community, or you may simply want to help a charity navigate its way through this exceptionally challenging period. Either way, you will need to know what the next steps are for getting involved in a charity and becoming a trustee – as well as how and where to find suitable roles.
“You can use your network to get involved,” says Armstrong. “There are also third-sector interfaces and databases, as well as specific recruitment companies that will advertise charity board positions through professional organisations such as ICAS.
“People are generally told it will involve around four to six board meetings or a few hours of your time over a year. That may well be the case, but there could be situations that necessitate a major board meeting, such as losing a CEO or a major grant, or even an international crisis. Then those meetings may be held quite frequently. That is worth factoring in.
“As a CA, you should also think carefully beforehand about whether you want an office bearer role, or at what point you may want to consider one. The challenge – and something any new board member must consider – is that legally all trustees are equally liable for the control and running of the charity.”
This is of particular relevance to CAs, Armstrong adds, as the range of skills they bring to a charity means they will always be in demand.
On every single board I’ve ever been involved in, we argue the importance of having somebody that really knows the finances.
“Most boards will be made up of pretty astute business people, whether that’s from within the local community, big business or anywhere in between. But having that particular financial expertise is incredibly valuable.”
She also believes that CAs should stress they can be more to a charity than simply “the finance person”. Every board of trustees would benefit from people who can add different skills and new ways of thinking.
“Sometimes there’s an expectation that an accountant comes onto the board and automatically becomes treasurer. So it’s good to get a feel for it first. You may bring a huge amount of other skills, experience and knowledge from different aspects of your life. There’s also something about boards operating well that is built around behaviours. If boards are full of leaders, or people who want to speak their mind, it’s quite difficult to get negotiation going or to get people who are more reflective.”
One should ultimately approach joining a charity in much the same way as you would a new company in a senior role. “Make sure you go to the regulatory bodies and that you’re aware of what your legal obligations would be as a trustee,” Armstrong explains. “Also, make sure the organisation brings you in with a bit of its history and an introduction about who they are. It’s the kind of thing that comes with any job; you want to suss them out, just as they want to suss you out.”
Above all, Armstrong says that whatever you give to a charity by becoming a trustee, you will gain so much more in return. She adds: “There’s something about stepping into a very different world with a very different language and context that also makes you think differently. And you can bring that fresh thinking back into your own organisation.
“With the blurring of boundaries between the charity sector and the sort of social responsibility that is now built into businesses as well, there is a greater understanding of the ability to give back and to do good. We’re gaining that global understanding of what we want society to look like and how we can – individually and as organisations – make a difference. That awareness can be beneficial in all parts of your life, both personally and professionally.”
Contact your national body:
England and Wales: acevo.org.uk
Northern Ireland: co3.bz
Learn more about volunteering on the ICAS website icas.com/members/get-involved/volunteering.