Recruit, manage and retain great charity trustees

  • Competition for funding and intense press, public and regulatory scrutiny, makes the work carried out by trustees increasingly important for charities
  • The sheer number of registered charities in the UK, combined with the voluntary nature of most positions, can pose a number of challenges
  • We explore the role of trustees and how charities can recruit, manage and retain the best possible candidates

Intense competition for finance, questions around fundraising practices, and high profile governance failures, make this a challenging time for charities and social enterprises. Competent and knowledgeable trustees are the key to success.

Regardless of size and profile, all charities rely on paid or voluntary trustees to control essential management functions, ranging from fundraising to recruitment. We explore the responsibilities of trustees, and how charities can attract and keep hold of the most effective candidates.

What are the responsibilities of a charity trustee?

Whether referred to as board members, directors or management committee members, the responsibilities of charity trustees are consistent.

Ultimately, trustees should ensure their organisation is operating responsibly and fulfilling the function for which it was established. There are a number of core responsibilities to make sure this is the case:

  1. Ensure the charity is working for the public benefit. Trustees should understand the charity’s purpose, and communicate what it wants to achieve and how its activities are supporting this aim and benefiting the public.
  2. Comply with the law and charity governing documents. Trustees are required to understand charity law, any additional laws relevant to the running of the charity and any internal governance documents.
  3. Manage resources responsibly. This requires financial prudence and not exposing the charity to unnecessary risk through investments, borrowing or any other inappropriate resource allocation.
  4. Act in the charity’s best interests. Trustees should not benefit from the charity in any way that is not explicitly approved and should avoid personal or business conflicts of interest.
  5. Ensure the charity is accountable. Trustees should comply with accounting and reporting requirements set out in law, demonstrating compliance to relevant regulators and internally defining individual accountability.
  6. Act with reasonable care and skill. Trustees need to devote the necessary amount of time to their roles (attending trustee meetings for example), using skills appropriately and taking advice where necessary.

How to recruit the best charity trustees

To ensure responsibilities are fulfilled effectively, charities first need to recruit effective and enthusiastic trustees.

Given the intense competition (nearly 167,000 charities are registered in England and Wales alone), effective recruitment can be difficult. However, there are a number of ways to maximise your chances of success:

  • Develop a recruitment policy. Recruiting effectively requires good planning. A recruitment policy can ensure consistency and save time.
  • Establish a recruitment panel. One common mistake is failing to devote the necessary time to getting it right. A dedicated taskforce can make sure the appointment is the right one.
  • Identify what your charity needs. Regular skills audits can maintain a strong mix of trustees and help charities understand what competencies, knowledge and experience are required from candidates.
  • Clearly define job roles and descriptions. It is essential that all trustees are pulling in the same direction, which requires explicit definitions of both roles and expectations.
  • Think about where the role is advertised. Whether through social media or volunteer events, effective recruiting requires the best candidates to hear about the role. The Small Charities Coalition has put together a useful document on recruitment portals.
  • Consider conflicts of interest. Trustees will struggle to perform their duties if personal or business interests conflict (or even appear to conflict) with the work of the charity. Work to identify, record and prevent any potential clashes.
  • Review procedures. Once a trustee has been appointed, take the time to assess the process. What went well? What could have gone better? What changes can be made next time around?

How to keep hold of the best trustees

Once an ideal candidate has been found, it is important to invest the time and effort necessary to retain them. A strong board requires consistency and continued development, which stems from the retention of board members.

Reviewing the board on a regular basis is key. As well as making sure any skill gaps are identified and filled, reviewing the board makes sure trustees stay motivated and continue to develop and perform.

Provide ongoing training where necessary. This does not have to break the bank. There are a number of organisations providing free or low-cost training to charity trustees. The Small Charities Coalition provides useful advice about the various organisations able to provide trustee training.

Encourage trustee participation in local forums and networks. Networking with fellow trustees at events like Trustees’ Week can be a great way of developing and sharing skills.

Regular performance appraisals for both paid and voluntary trustees ensure the board continues to develop and can make trustees feel valued for the (often voluntary) work they put in.