What is a trustee and how do I become one?

Leon Ward & Getting on Board

Every charity in the UK has a board of trustees but what is a trustee? And how does someone become a trustee? These questions are answered in this episode.

Leon Ward has been a trustee since he was 18. He has published a best practice guide on young trustees in partnership with the Charities Aid Foundation. More recently, he has been the Deputy Chair of Brook Young People – the largest sex and relationships charity for young people in the UK.

Getting on Board is a charity aiming to diversify who sits at the board table and leads charities.

Resources and links


Zac Parsons
Hello everyone, and welcome to this Charity Professional Development Webcast; an opportunity for you to learn, develop, and contribute more to your cause. Today, we are joined by Leon Ward of Getting on Board, who will be talking to us about what a trustee is and how you can become one. Leon has been a trustee since he was 18. He has published a best practice guide on young trustees in partnership with the Charities Aid Foundation. And, more recently, he has been the Deputy Chair of Brook Young People, the largest sex and relationships charity for young people in the UK. Getting on Board is a charity aiming to diversify who sits at the board table and leads charities. So, looking forward to this talk; Leon, I will hand over to you.

Leon Ward
Thanks, Zac. And thanks for that introduction. And just to say that whilst I’m not currently a trustee – which is the first time in 12 years – I do actually serve on the board committees of both Refuge and the Children’s Society. I’m not a trustee right now, just because when my time Brook ended as Deputy Chair, I then had to move house and I was in a fairly new job; so, from a time perspective, just didn’t have the time to be able to commit to it.

But you may come off of this session thinking that trusteeship isn’t right for you right now. And that’s absolutely fine. Because there are lots of components of your life that you’ll need to consider and think about whether this is right for you.

I do have a deck of slides to just run through. Obviously, we’ve only got 20 minutes during the session, so I will move at pace. But I am around on the various social media channels that you can see should you wish to get in touch.

In terms of a quick introduction, I won’t introduce myself, but Getting on Board is an organisation that exists to change the face of trusteeship. And we do that primarily in two ways, one running sessions like this for people who are potential aspiring trustees. And the second thing we do is train charities on how to better recruit trustees.

There is a diversity crisis in the charity sector on boards. And part of that is because of the way that charities do their recruitment. So we try and change that. We come at it from a two-pronged approach.

In terms of what I’m going to focus on in the next 17 minutes is, what is the trustee – a very quick overview – an introduction into what do they do, some tips on how to start your search (we’ll start thinking about your search to become a trustee), and then where you can find more information. So there’s plenty of signposting in this.

Now, in terms of what is the trustee, hopefully, the Charity Commission has defined it in just a couple of sentences. And for those of you that work in the charity sector, you will know about your trustees, and some of you might have even met them, some of you will not have and – actually – that is common in lots of organisations for people not to know their trustees; they’re often seen as this far removed group of volunteers.

And that’s the starting point. Trustees are first and foremost volunteers for their charity. And so if you’re thinking, “do I have it in me to be a trustee?” Actually, if you have in you to be a volunteer, then you can absolutely progress to be a trustee or start as a trustee like I did.

But, what are trustees, then?

Well, they’re the people that have overall control of a charity and are responsible for making sure it’s doing what it was set up to do. Your trustees might not be known as trustees, they could be called governors, directors, committee members, etc. Whatever they are, if they are registered with the Charity Commission, they are trustees, and they decide how the charity is run. Very different to managing a charity, but it is a grey area. And I’ll tell you why it’s a grey area in a couple of slides time.

In terms of the six duties of Trustees. This is what the Charity Commission say your six core duties and this is pulled from something called the essential trustee, which – well – really is essential reading for first-time trustees; it’s your guidebook to the role, it’s really a decent piece of kit that they’ve now got on the Charity Commission website. And if you’ve never used the Commission website before, do have a look. It is the regulator of charities in England and Wales. If you’re in Scotland, then you need to look at the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator. And if you’re in Northern Ireland, you need to look at the Northern Irish Charity Commission. But for today’s session, I’ll focus on England and Wales even though the regulatory framework is the same in all four nations.

So, the six duties you have. First, ensure your charity is carrying out its purposes for the public benefit. Basically, are you doing what you are supposed to do? If you are a charity set up to help sick dogs, but you start helping sick cats, you would technically be in breach of that public benefit. So you might want to change it to ‘helping sick animals’. And we see that as charities evolve.

The second thing is you have to comply with your charity’s governing document and the law. The governing document is essentially the constitution of the charity. It tells you where powers lie and what decisions the board can make and can’t make. If you become a trustee of a member’s organisation, it will also outline the role of the members. Usually, they elect the trustees, but there are some other things that they can get involved in too.

You have to act in your charity’s best interests. And this is a contentious one in some ways because it seems like common sense. But, if you’re somebody that is close to your charity, let’s say your charity for a food bank, and on the Tuesday night, you’re doing a shift at the food bank giving out parcels of food and, then, on the Thursday, you’re making decisions about cutting services, you can see how that can come into conflict. Your job is to act in the interests of the charity. The best interests of the charity. And sometimes that can be at odds with all the other interests.

You have to ensure your charity is accountable. You have to manage your charity’s resources responsibly. So interesting one, because ‘responsible’ is open to interpretation. There are some people out there that think you absolutely should not pay a charity chief executive more than, well, anything actually, some people think. There are others out there that think, “to get good people in to manage your organisation, you should pay them”. So this is why really collegiate decision-making on a board is so important and why board diversity is important because it allows for all of those viewpoints to be pulled together.

You also, lastly, have to act with reasonable care and skill. And this places a layer of protection around you. As I said, trustees are volunteers. The law in this country takes a really proactive role in protecting charity trustees; acting with reasonable care and skill will avoid you from getting into trouble. It’s not like trustees get into trouble that often anyway, and I’ll bring that to life a bit soon.

Here are some of the examples of issues dealt with by trustees. Now, you might sort of say, “well, why has he done this because this could come up all the time”. But some of these don’t always come up in every meeting. Sometimes they can come in at crisis point or when something happens, but you should expect to have good coverage across these areas.

So, what that means to you; is that it should give you some confidence, because actually, most trustees are generalists, where people can can can contribute to the discussion on all of these areas, even if your expertise was in, in this example, just in fundraising, could still contribute to the discussion around services and finance and safeguarding – looking after the people that you work with. So, you shouldn’t think, “I don’t have anything to give” is the point of this slide. Really, everybody’s got something to give, because it’s about bringing your general expertise, your background and your perspectives.

As I say, not all of these will be dealt with in all meetings, it would be a bit of a red flag for me if finance didn’t come up in all meetings. And, for some of you, that will absolutely turn you off bored. But don’t worry, it’s normally a 15-minute item on the agenda, depending on the shape of your finances. But that is the one that typically comes up all of the time. You do not need to be an accountant or a lawyer to be a trustee. And I’ll bring to life in a moment what the trustee population looks like.

Some practical aspects of being a trustee, then. Typically they’re four to eight people, though I have seen boards at either end of the scale, I’ve seen some that have got three trustees, and some that have got 30 trustees because of the way that they’re constituted. But, as an average, four to eight to 12 is probably where you’re sitting.

They tend to meet around three to six times a year. This is something you should check as you go through your search. Smaller charities typically take up more time, as do startups. So if you’re interested in startup charity sector culture, that’s great, they absolutely need you to be a trustee. But just be aware that it will probably take more time.

If you take on an enhanced role in time, like a treasurer or secretary or something like that. You can also expect your time commitment to increase, you might do different things for the charity between meetings. And as I indicated there, that could be by being the secretary, or serving on a subcommittee, but it could also be you attend the staff awards, or you do a presentation at the staff away day, or you go and visit some of your services. There are lots of different things that you can do in between the meetings that embed you into the organisation and help deepen your learning

You should have an agenda and papers which you should get in advance. Because the bare minimum most boards will expect from you is that you at least turn up and that you read the papers. So please do do that. Because we want people to go out into the world as good trustees, not mediocre trustees.

Minutes record what was decided in the meeting. And every trustee’s opinion has equal weight. It doesn’t matter whether they’ve been a trustee for three years, 10 years, whether they’re the chair, deputy chair, treasurer, secretary, honorary president, whatever, if they’re a trustee, you all have equal weight. It just so happens to be that the chair is first among equals; they decided the debate and they might not come to you in the discussion because they want to move the agenda item on, but that’s it. And – in reality – in boards, if you really do want to protest about something, you absolutely will be able to.

In terms of the trustee landscape, then. I wanted to just bring to life a little bit, who are trustees? There’s like 160,000 charities in England and Wales. So the need for trustees is quite high. Because for every charity to register in this country, you have to have a board of trustees.

And it’s worth saying that at this point that 75% of charities have an income of less than £100,000. That should help set your expectations. Most of the sector is small, very small. The vast majority … 25% of charities turnover more than £100,000, but that’s teeny tiny. And in terms of those that are the real, wealthy organisations, they are absolutely in the minority.

There’s almost a million trustee vacancies in England and Wales. So you should take comfort in that there’s a million of us out there that are doing this. So it’s very much for everybody. You are, sort of, joining an army of volunteers, really, of people that want to support charities in this way.

There are 2,000 trustees appointed on average every week, and at any one time, there are 90,000 vacancies. Now, just to say here, just to flesh out those numbers, 1.3% of charities and England and Wales earn 72% of the sector’s income. The reason I’ve put that on there is because it should help you manage your expectations; it’s likely you’ll join a small- or medium-sized charity, more than likely because of the shape of the sector.

And, actually, lots of charities are small on purpose, they’re super concentrated on the postcode area, on a cause in a particular community. And so they don’t need to grow. They’ve been around 50 years, but they’ve never grown bigger than whatever they’ve needed to run their core services. And that’s fine, too.

You can expect to get loads out of being a trustee. So in terms of pitching this to you… 96% of trustees say they’ve learned new skills. 84% said being a trustee made them happier. 86% say it’s a good complement to professional and family life. 38% have new leadership aspirations as a result; it’s a leadership role. It allows you to lean into other areas of your skill set that perhaps your day job doesn’t – you’re not restricted in it by being the expert on that particular issue like you are in your day job. Typically, you can expand your skill set and your experience

In terms of what you need to do to start thinking about where you will go. And some of you might have already done this, but you need to start thinking about the causes that you’re interested in. And the reason is the charity sector is extremely diverse. With 160,000 charities, I can guarantee whatever niche interest you have, there is a charity out there for you. So, use that as a filter. Otherwise, you can find it quite overwhelming when you’re looking in the sector at roles that are available to you.

Think about the size and stage and take some of those warning notes that I mentioned earlier. And also think about the logistics. Do you want an online board? Do you want a board that is hybrid? Do you live in a city now – or in a different town from where you grew up – but want to volunteer for an organisation back where you grew up? How does that work? Do you want to volunteer internationally as a trustee? Think about the logistics, because that will help guide the type of role you can go for and whether or not it’s right for you at that time.

Lastly, think about your time demand and availability, which I think is pretty obvious.

The second thing you should then think about is connecting and thinking about your relevant skills, passions, knowledge, and experience. And connecting that to the issues and challenges that charities face. The paperwork that they produce for you to become a trustee should hopefully bring that to life. Some of the things that we’re seeing at the moment are, “COVID wiped out our reserves, and we’ve got to recover from that”, “COVID really impacted our visitor numbers”, whatever it happens to be, you can expect the pandemic has impacted most organisations. But think about how – and get ready to prep your elevator pitch on how – you can help those charities with those common problems.

So once you’ve done core size and stage, and thought about the skills and experience that you’re bringing, you should also think about what you want to gain. No one thinks you should be a trustee for completely altruistic reasons. If you want to learn about a new sector, or if you want to learn a new skill set, or if you want to take on something because you know you’re at a point where you want to develop a portfolio career or whatever, fine, say it, because one of the questions that ask you is, “why do you want to be a trustee? And why us?”. They’re normally the two questions that are guaranteed an interview. So be prepared to answer that answer truthfully

In terms of the skill set you’re bringing, and thinking about what you’re bringing. There are six areas we think you should pull that from.

The first is your life experience. Critical. Especially if you’re a potential service user of that charity or an ex-service-user of that charity, because it’s really important to have the service-user voice around the board. Trusteeship might not be the right way for all organisations, but there are ways of weaving in the service user voice. But do bring that up if you’ve got life experience that you think’s relevant

Any relevant qualifications, your work experience, your skills and qualities, any volunteering, fundraising or campaigning you’ve done, and – lastly – your passions.

As I say, that question about ‘why do you want to be a trustee?’ and ‘why us?’, you might be able to say, “look, I’m really interested in international development and, over the years, I have done lots of campaigning for increasing the GDP spend on international development” or whatever. You can show that the passion has then been turned into practical action, even if your day job has been in a supermarket or whatever.

So, the challenges that charities face, then. Very broad. I kept this broad on purpose so that you all feel like you can connect to one of these.

But they tell us that they struggle with being strategic. So they need help looking at the bigger picture and horizon scanning. They don’t necessarily need people who are in the detail. Sometimes, there’ll be the opportunity for you to talk about the detail. But largely, you’re the critical best friend, scanning the horizon, helping the charity, thinking about what’s coming over the hill.

Fundraising and income generation. Growth and infrastructure. Human resources. Marketing and public relations. Finance. Legal. Governance. Technology. Premises. That probably covers most of them. There will be other niche ones in there that you might support with, but generally, most people would be able to offer skills and expertise on one of these, or on several of these. So, hopefully, that’s making you feel comfortable that charities do need you.

In the last few minutes, then, on how to find a trustee vacancy. Three primary routes.

The first is through your volunteering, if you’ve done any. If not, you might come off this call and think, “I’m gonna go volunteer, and then become a trustee over time”; it’s a really good way to become a trustee, and get to know the organisation a bit. For more established charities, that’s not always possible, they just recruit their trustees. But if you think, “actually, I don’t know enough about charities or about charities in that sector”, you might go and volunteer first. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing if you come off this call and think that.

Think about your existing relationships. Most of you are probably connected to people that are connected to charities, if you’re not already yourself, connected to other organisations outside of your immediate sphere. So, ask around, look at trustee vacancy listings, and then make direct approaches.

Sometimes they will ask for specific trustees, like marketing and fundraising; use that to help guide your search because that will just help you work out where you fit.

There’s a whole page of trustee vacancy listings here, I’ll hang about for 30 seconds while you take a screenshot. But essentially, you can use Google and have a look at Reach Volunteering, as well. Reach Volunteering is free, they force the organisations who use it to follow a template. So, have a look at some of the adverts get used to the language, have a play around and a feel around and have a look at what sorts of things they’re looking for. And you’ll be able to see the diversity that I’ve tried to bring a life in here.

And there’ll be some organisations that advertise on Reach who meet every month, that – for some of you – will be absolutely a no go because you just can’t fit it in. There’ll be others who are watching this that might think, “actually, that’s perfect for me and where I am in my life at the moment”.

You can also make direct speculative approaches. So most of us live near charities, you see charities in action all the time, like the food banks, the people doing the litter picks in the parks, they are normally backed by a charity. Nearly every theatre is a charity. Every university is a charity in England. Multi-academy trusts that look after your schools are charities. So, there is loads everywhere. So think about approaching speculatively and getting in touch with the people that I’ve listed on here.

In terms of maximising your chances, then. Think about your difference, because that is your strength, but be informed about the organisation and connect the dots for them. Sometimes they won’t know that your difference is your strength, so you need to spell it out for them. And I think should wear that on your sleeve. Because I am always impressed by applicants that do that.

If you’re likely to be different. Ask them, “Look, I’m not quite the person you’ve described in the person spec. But I’m really committed to the cause. I’ve got these set of skills, do you want them?”. The worst thing they can do is ignore you and the second worst thing we can do is say “no”, in which case you just move on anyway.

Do your homework on the charity. Be honest about your available time. Think about whether you can be more hands-on, so, “I can help you X, Y, and Z”, “I’m happy to talk to your fundraising director whilst they write their fundraising strategy”, “I’m happy to coach a member of staff”, whatever. You can be more hands-on, if you want to be, and you should flag that.

Be prepared to apply for several roles. And think about volunteering first and improve your governance skills.

In terms of ‘what next?’ for you, then, in the last minute. The first thing is to start with researching those vacancies on trustee websites. Sign up to our newsletter (just go to www.gettingonboard.org and you’ll see the sign-up at the top). Make a long list. Start researching those organisations and then draft a cover letter and start adapting your CV. What I would really like you to do is just start. That’s the key thing. As with anything in life, once you start. it’s always much easier to crack on.

And also you’ll be very pleased to know that we actually have a guide for you. So if you’ve never applied for a charity trustee role before, this has got top tips on how to craft the CV and cover letter and some other places to find more information, and you can find that on our website too.

And that leads me to say thank you very much. If you wish to connect with me on those channels, you absolutely can do. Thanks for coming and I hope you’re going to go out there and become great trustees.

Zac Parsons
Thank you so much. That was a huge amount of information conveyed in a short amount of time. So well done for that, and really useful information.

It’s fantastic that you’ve laid out the expectations of the charity; what people can expect. I love the point on, even if you don’t feel that you necessarily have all of the expertise for every single point – everything single agenda item – in a trustee meeting, still asking questions is important. I often think an inquisitive question is very sensible and can be really helpful, even if you’re perhaps not an expert.

And great that you outlined that the sheer size of the sector, and the sheer diversity of the sector, means that there’s going to be a role out there for you if you do want to become a charity trustee.

And then those practical tips on how to get started is wonderful. And if you didn’t have a chance to quickly grab your phone out and take a photo of Leon’s slide, we will put all of those links in the description. So don’t worry, they’ll be available.

So, incredible. Well, Leon, is there anything you would want to leave us on; a final thought?

Leon Ward
I guess I would say that be careful what you wish for because once you become a trustee, you probably do it for the rest of your life. It’s a really rewarding and enriching experience, and one that will stick around with you until the end of time.

Zac Parsons
Amazing. What a brilliant way to end. Well, thank you so much, Leon. Thank you so much, everyone for tuning in. And we shall see you all next time. Cheers.