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About Trustees

Who are trustees? What do they do? What are the twelve main roles trustees play in their organisations? Find out here.

How can you become a trustee?

Where can you find a trustee for your organisation

Trustees are the people responsible for ensuring that an organisation has a clear strategy, that it remains true to its original vision, and that it complies with all necessary rules and legal obligations.

Collectively, trustees are known as the board, and they have a number of formal roles and responsibilities, which include appointing key people and keeping a check on the organisation's finances and activities.

You can think of a trustee as a guardian looking out for the organisation's best interests and promoting its aims in the wider world.

Trustees guide the organisation. They make sure it's heading in the right direction and doing what it was set up to do. Trustees shouldn't get involved in the detailed, day-to-day running of the organisation: that's the job of the chief executive and the management committee. (But in a small organisation trustees may wear several hats - including those of chief executive or manager.)

What's in a name?

Just to make things even trickier, trustees may not be called trustees at all. They may be called members of the committee, management committee members, directors, council members, executive committee members, governors or something completely different.

No matter what they are called, the voting members of the top governing or supervisory body of a charity are its charity trustees. If you have this role and your organisation has charitable status then you will be a trustee.

If the charity is also a company limited under guarantee, then the trustees are also directors of the charity.

The Charities Act 1993 states that charity trustees are 'the people responsible under the charity's governing document for controlling the management and administration of the charity, regardless of what they are called'.

A little bit of history

Why all this fuss over what trustees are called?

In 1992 the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) report On Trust into charity trustees found that two-thirds of charity trustees didn't know that they were trustees. In many cases this was because they were known by some other title.

To get over this confusion NCVO recommends that charities call their governing body the 'board of trustees' and the individuals who have legal responsibility for the organisation 'trustees'.

What do trustees do?

Trustee boards have twelve main roles:

  1. Set and maintain vision, mission and values The trustee board is responsible for establishing the essential purpose of the organisation. They are also responsible for guarding the ethos and values of the organisation.
  2. Develop strategy Together, the trustee board and chief executive officer develop long-term strategy. Meeting agendas reflect the key points of the strategy to keep the organisation on track.
  3. Establish and monitor policies The trustee board creates policies to govern organisational activity. These cover:
    • Guidance for staff
    • Systems for reporting and monitoring
    • An ethical framework for everyone connected with the organisation
    • Conduct of trustees and board business
  4. Set up employment procedures The trustee board creates comprehensive, fair and legal personnel policies. These protect the organisation and those who work for it. They cover:
    • Recruitment
    • Support
    • Appraisal
    • Remuneration
    • Discipline
    It also recruits and selects new trustee board members.
  5. Ensure compliance with governing documentThe governing document is the rulebook for the organisation. The trustees make sure it is followed. In particular, the organisation's activities must comply with the charitable objects.
  6. Ensure accountability The trustees should ensure that the organisation fulfils accountability as required by law to the Charity Commission, the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the Registrar of Companies (if it is a company limited by guarantee).
    The organisation should also be accountable to donors, beneficiaries, staff, volunteer, and the general public. This means publishing annual reports and accounts.
  7. Ensure compliance with the law Trustees are responsible for checking that all the organisation's activities are legal.
  8. Maintain proper fiscal oversightThe trustees are responsible for effectively managing the organisation's resources so it can meet its charitable objects. The trustee board:
    • Secures sufficient resources to fulfil the mission
    • Monitors spending in the best interests of the organisation
    • Approves the annual financial statement and budget
    • Protects the organisation against liability by providing insurance
    • Seeks to minimise risk for the organisation
    • Participates in fundraising (in some organisations)
    • Ensures legal compliance
  9. Select and support the chief executive If necessary, the trustee board creates policy covering the employment of a chief executive. They also select and support the chief executive and review their performance.
  10. Respect the role of staff The trustee board recognises and respects the domain of staff responsibility. At the same time, it creates policy to guide staff activities and safeguard the interests of the organisation.
  11. Maintain effective board performanceThe board keeps its own house in order. It engages in:
    • Productive meetings
    • Effective committees with adequate resources
    • Development activities
    • Regular performance reviews
    • Partnership with consultants where necessary
  12. Promote the organisation Through their own behaviour, their governance oversight and their activities on behalf of the organisation trustees enhance and protect the reputation of their organisation. They are good ambassadors for the organisation.
Trustee - key resources:
Good Governance: A Code for the Voluntary and Community Sector
The code is intended to help and support board members in the important and rewarding work that they carry out. It...

National Occupational Standards for Trustees and Management Committee Members
The National Occupational Standards for Trustees and Management Committee Members (NOS) complement the Code of...

Best Behaviour : Using Trustee Codes of Conduct to Improve Governance Practice
This guide contains NCVO's new model code of conduct and a full rationale for each of the areas covered. It strives to...

21st Century Board
The Governance Hub's vision of a 21st Century Board lays out some of the different aspects for improving governance...

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