Recruiting, managing and retaining trustees
Intense competition, commissioning practices, questions around fundraising methods, and the high profile governance issues of recent years are great examples of the challenges many charities continue to wrestle with.
Competent and knowledgeable trustees are therefore more essential to a charity’s health than ever before. Indeed, regardless of size and profile, all charities rely on trustees to have overall control of essential management functions, ranging from fundraising to recruitment.
However, the growing competition (there are nearly 167,000 charities registered in England and Wales alone), has led to increasingly difficult retention and recruitment issues for charities trying to appoint the most effective trustees.
Responsibilities of a charity trustee
Whether referred to as board members, directors or management committee members, the responsibilities of charity trustees are consistent and significant. It is therefore imperative a charity’s trustees are fully aware of their role and the responsibilities they have undertaken.
Ultimately, trustees must ensure their charity is operating responsibly and fulfilling the function for which it was established. This sounds straightforward enough; however, it requires a broad understanding of all the organisation’s activities, with a continual focus on ensuring 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 benefitting the public.
While formal qualifications are not required, and in many cases such qualifications do not necessarily deliver greater charitable outcomes, an understanding of charity law is essential. This extends to an awareness of the additional laws relevant to the fundamental aims of the charity, and internal governance documents. New appointees should always undergo appropriate training to ensure they are up to speed in this continually evolving field.
Trustee responsibilities also extend to managing resources responsibly, and ensuring the charity is accountable. This requires financial prudence and not exposing the charity to unnecessary risk through investments, borrowing or any other inappropriate resource allocation. It is also continually worth bearing in mind that it is trustees who need to demonstrate compliance to relevant regulators.
Overall however, the most high profile responsibility bestowed on trustees is to always act with reasonable care and skill and, crucially, in the charity’s best interests. Recent media coverage has highlighted that poor recruitment of trustees hasn’t always led to this being the case. Trustees need to devote the necessary amount of time to their roles (including, but not limited, to attending trustee meetings), and using skills appropriately and taking advice where necessary.
Recruiting the best charity trustees
To ensure these responsibilities are fulfilled effectively, charities first need to recruit effective and enthusiastic trustees. While there is intense competition for the best, there are several ways a charity can maximise their chances of success.
Firstly, develop a recruitment policy and establish a recruitment panel. Recruiting effectively requires good planning and a policy can ensure consistency and save time. A common mistake when appointing trustees is failing to devote the necessary time and resources to getting it right. Equally there can be the temptation to opt for a well-known name or recognisable public figure over someone who may be less well-known but better on paper.
As with any senior appointment, establishing a dedicated recruitment taskforce, backed up by a standardised policy, can make sure the appointment is the right one.
Before looking to appoint, always undertake the necessary groundwork to determine what skills 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. Similarly, it is essential that job roles and descriptions are clearly defined. All trustees need to be pulling in the same direction.
Thinking about where the role is advertised can make a significant difference to the overall calibre of applicants. Whether through social media or volunteer events, effective recruiting requires the best candidates to hear about the role. There are a number of portals identified by the Small Charities Coalition which will be an effective starting point for advertising positions.
Particularly as it’s often not the most difficult subject to broach, it is essential to consider conflicts of interest before finalising a trustee’s appointment. Any business interests which conflict, or even appear to conflict, with the work of the charity can call into question the impartiality of your trustees – leading to further questions about governance more broadly. At this stage of recruitment, work to identify, record, and prevent any potential clashes.
This vetting process becomes even more important when considering well-known appointees. Conflicts of interest or potentially damaging revelations for a charity can extend to previously unnoticed social media posts or past interactions with the public that these potential trustees may have had.
Keeping 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 stem 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 trustees ensure the board continues to develop and can make trustees feel valued for the work they put in.
With these measures implemented, charities can feel safe in the knowledge that they have the best and most effective trustees in place.