An open letter to charity trustee

Without your ongoing belief, passion and commitment to your charity, society would be far worse as those in need would have fewer services available to help them. Your efforts impact every level of society positively. Thank you.

However, you cannot be complacent. You should not relax in the luxury of the moral high ground. Public support and confidence in the sector is precious and it should not be hooked on the future promise of quick funds. Each week the media presents a new story of charities acting in discordance with the trust invested in them and trustees are the ones with whom the buck stops.

It is time to stop the rot and take stock. Current governance standards appear to be lacking, so we must go back to the fundamentals. The Charities Act 2011 defines trustees as ‘…The persons having the general control and management of the administration of a charity’ (s177). What does that mean in practice?

In short, as a trustee you must:

  • Act in the best interests of the charity at all times, and to the benefit of present and future beneficiaries, in accordance with the charity’s governing document
  • Act to protect the charity’s property and resources
  • Ensure the solvency and effective running of the charity
  • Ensure that there are effective controls in place to monitor and regularly review the charity’s finance and administration systems
  • Agree the strategic direction of the charity
  • Ensure that all risks to the charity and its assets are identified and appropriate steps established to mitigate against those risks
  • Comply with any other legal or regulatory requirements relevant to your charity’s activities.

In performing these functions you are encouraged to act as prudent men and women of business and to take an approach that would deliver a higher duty of care than if you were dealing with your own money. This is not unreasonable, and most trustees bear in mind the need to be transparent and honest in their dealings with the money and resources of the charity.

The scrutiny of being held to account by donors and beneficiaries for your actions as trustees is a constant reminder to use common sense, independent judgement, critical faculties and specialist knowledge. In doing so, you will be assured, to the best of your abilities, that a course of action is the best one for achieving the stated charitable purposes. Where you do not understand a proposal, you have the ability to ask for expert guidance and you should not be afraid to make use of it.

At a time when there is more media attention focused on charities, and the way they deliver their charitable objects and public benefit, as a trustee you need to be extra vigilant in the decisions you make and actions you support. Challenging decisions in the boardroom from the perspective of a journalist might now be an additional tool to help you in your decision-making. Many PR professionals consider the ‘tabloid test’ before taking, or not taking, action. This should not, however, prevent you from being bold and defending your decisions when you believe that the decision will fundamentally improve the lives of your beneficiaries.

There is a growing demand for your services during these times of austerity. Shirking from meeting those needs in the best way you can and trying to avoid any media attention would be the real shame of charity. Your best defence is to keep on delivering for your beneficiaries.

Louise Thomson, FCIS is Head of Policy (Not-For-Profit), at ICSA: The Governance Institute.

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