Stronger charities through good leadership: The many faces of a charity trustee
As Trustees’ Week comes to an end for another year, Anne Adrain shares her experiences as a finance professional working collectively with other trustee board members to keep their charity running smoothly.
Becoming a charity trustee
Around five years ago I was invited to join the board of a local charity. I decided that, given my accounting and auditing background, the financial and governance skills I had acquired would be a useful addition to the board. My expectation was that I would attend monthly board meetings, perhaps get involved in some fundraising activities and pick up some of the day-to-day operational issues on an ad hoc basis.
Over the years I have certainly been involved in each of these, but what I perhaps did not anticipate was the range of skills that are needed by a board of trustees.
Guidance on good governance and trusteeship
The following organisations have resources available to help trustees fulfil their duties:
The reality is that many smaller charities have very few resources available to them including staffing. Consequently, it often falls to the trustees to try to fill some of the skills gaps to ensure that the charity runs smoothly.
As expected, my financial and analytical experience has been well used in monitoring the finances of the charity and assisting with the preparation of the charity’s accounts, including ensuring that these comply with the relevant regulatory and legislative requirements. However, here some of the other unanticipated skills and expertise that have been needed to deal with the various challenges that have arisen over the last five years.
Many small charities do not have a budget for investment in state of the art IT equipment. What tends to happen is that they inherit the out of date equipment that larger organisations replace. That does not mean that these donations are not appreciated and welcome, as much of this equipment is still in very good working order, however, there are often compatibility issues with existing hardware and software which require the assistance of a technical expert. As a board, we have collectively begged and borrowed advice and assistance over the years to help when IT problems have arisen but sometimes we have had no choice but to spend some of our limited funds to resolve the problem.
Marketing / website / social media challenges
One of the biggest challenges that smaller charities face is the lack of awareness of the valuable service they provide. It is unusual for such small charities to have dedicated internal marketing expertise therefore it generally falls to the board to drive the awareness raising campaign with the help of the staff.
Key to increasing awareness of a charity’s activities, for both potential service users and funders, is the creation and maintenance of a charity’s website. The initial creation of the website is likely to require specialist expertise and knowledge. Although once established, web designers now tend to offer training on maintaining and updating the content of a website. The responsibility for doing this might fall to an administrator within the charity but, ultimately it’s be down to the board to oversee and monitor the content of the website as part of its governance role.
In an age where social media is so powerful, no charity can afford not be engaged in this area. However, charities can face specific challenges when posting on social media and careful consideration needs to be given to whether the content of any such posts are appropriate given the charitable purpose and objectives. The board needs to control this area to avoid any reputational damage or distress being caused for the services users.
Most charities rely on volunteers, sometimes as an alternative to paid staff or as a means of assisting staff in the charity’s service delivery. A happy, motivated and committed pool of people is vital for any organisation and even more so for a charity. Many of the issues that staff and volunteers face daily, through the course of their work, can be distressing and quite traumatic, and whilst the board needs to be sufficiently sensitive to these issues, they also need to ensure that consistent, clear employment and volunteering policies and procedures are established and communicated so that both staff and volunteers understand their rights and responsibilities. Managing this balance can be challenging at times and relies on the board’s ability to work together and ensure that everyone understands what is expected of them.
These challenges may look daunting but with the help of strong board with a diverse range of skills, they can all be overcome. In the five years since I joined the board, I have recently taken on the role of Treasurer for a second charity as I now realise from first-hand experience the importance of the board in ensuring that the charity meets its objectives. However, more importantly, the last five years have been so rewarding. I’ve made many new friends, and new connections, and have learned so much in the process. Above all though, the reward from being able to do something to improve someone else’s life is priceless.
About the author
Anne Adrain is Assistant Director, Sustainability & Assurance at ICAS and a member of ACCA. Anne’s background is general practice and audit, specialising in charities. She is also a trustee of two charities, with treasurer responsibilities for both of these.