Role of the Trustee

Posted on 28 Jun 2018 Last updated on 5 Mar 2019

We refer to the people who govern charities in Ireland as trustees. By law, they are volunteers and are ultimately responsible for all that the charity does.

There are over 60,000 charity trustees in Ireland today.

Trustees take on a leadership role in the organisation, ensuring that the charity remains focused on its long-term vision and has the resources to achieve its goals. The trustees have a responsibility to support and oversee the management, staff and volunteers involved in the charity. They also must ensure that the organisation meets its legal obligations and that its finances are properly managed. Ultimately the trustees need to ensure that the charity operates in a transparent and fair way.

Becoming a charity trustee can seem daunting at first. Below we have set out the main areas of responsibility in straightforward language in order to help you understand your role and responsibilities.

How Can I ensure I’m doing a Good Job as a Charity Trustee?

The Charities Regulator launched a new Charities Governance Code in late 2018. This Code sets out a mandatory standard for governance in Irish charities. The Code identifies 6 principles on which good governance is based. By looking at these principles we can identify some of the key responsibilities for charity trustees.

The six principles are:

  1. Advancing Charitable Purpose
  2. Behaving with Integrity
  3. Leading People
  4. Exercising Control
  5. Working Effectively
  6. Being Accountable & Transparent

What do these principles mean in practice for charity trustees?

Advancing Charitable Purpose

The Code emphasises the primary responsibility of trustees to their charity's governing document and also to ensure that their charity promotes its charitable purpose only and that it is of public benefit. In order to make this a reality trustees must make sure that the vision of the organisation is clear to everyone. Also by providing a written plan for the organisation that everyone involved can refer to and that the trustees can review the organisation’s progress against.

Behaving with Integrity

The role of trustee is a highly responsible and influential one, trustees must be careful at all times to act with integrity. This includes maintaining the highest standards of honesty, fairness and independence. Trustees have an obligation to manage any potential conflicts of interest – in fact by law, when acting in your role as a trustee, you must make decisions in the best interests of your charity, and not in the interests of yourself, anyone connected with you or organisations or groups you are involved with outside the charity.

The Code highlights the importance of trustees fostering an ethical culture in their charity. 

Leading People

This principle highlights the fundamental importance of the people involved in all aspects of the organisation - and the trustees' responsibility to provide leadership for all volunteers, employees and contractors. Trustees' legal obligations to staff are highlighted alongside the importance of providing clear role descriptions and policies for all volunteers and staff to follow. 

Exercising Control 

The Code identifies the responsibility of trustees' to uphold all legal and regulatory obligations of their charity. It also draws attention to the financial oversight role that is central to the trustees' duties. Appropriate controls are identified including internal financial controls and risk management.  Charities are dealing with increasingly complex compliance requirements, everything from Data Protection legislation to Employment Law to Charity and Lobbying regulation - it is important that trustees keep up-to-date with the latest developments. 

It is also important that trustees engage in proportionate risk management. We would recommend that organisations take a strategic approach to risk and that the board of trustees leads the organisation through regular risk assessments in order to identify significant dangers and opportunities ahead of time.

Work Effectively 

This principle is all about the board itself working effectively. It is the most extensive principle in the Code, with 9 core standards outlined under it. The trustees themselves have a responsibility to make sure that they are working effectively together as a board. The Code outlines some of the ways that the board can do this. It recommends that all trustees and others in the organisation understand the role of the board and where it fits within the organisation’s structure. The trustees should also work to make sure their meetings are effective. Another important element is ensuring that the trustees have development opportunities, with self-evaluation built into their annual work, alongside plans for renewing the board.

The culture of an organisation is underpinned by the governing body, so trustees need to ensure they lead by example.   

Being Accountable and Transparent

Charities have a particular obligation to be transparent – charities are committed to improving our communities and, in order to do this work, they are often entrusted with public funds (in the form of donations and government grants). They also have a public benefit mission, and therefore are accountable for the activities that they undertake in order to fulfil this public good. 

Therefore charities must be actively accountable to a range of stakeholders, including the general public.

As the Code identifies, this means that trustees have a communications challenge. Trustees must communicate clearly with all those who have an interest in their charities' work - about the impact their organisations are having in communities, about the work they are planning to carry out and about how they are spending the funds that have been given to them. Trustees should respond to questions and feedback from these stakeholders.

Trustees must also listen to and engage with those who benefit from their work and involve them in the planning and decision making. 

Legal Duties of Charity Trustees

The Charities Regulator has produced a very useful document that sets out the legal duties of charity trustees. It takes you through twelve key legal duties that are specific to charity trustees. You can read and download the document here: Guidance for Charity Trustees.

Next Steps

1. explore The Wheel's Charity Trustee Driver’s Licence

3. read our Sustainable Communities Governance Guide

4. read A Blog From a Trustee's Point of View