Role of the Trustee

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 50,000 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 Governance Code for Community, Voluntary and Charity Organisations sets out a standard of good practice for governance in Irish nonprofits. The Code identifies 5 principles on which good governance is based. By looking at these principles we can identify some of the key responsibilities for charity trustees.

The five principles are:

  1. Lead Our Organisation
  2. Exercise Control over our Organisation
  3. Be Transparent and Accountable
  4. Work Effectively as a Board
  5. Behave with Integrity

What do these principles mean in practice for charity trustees?

Lead Our Organisation

The Governance Code describes a board of trustees that provides leadership in a number of ways. Firstly through making sure that the vision and values of the organisation are 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. The trustees must also hold the staff and volunteers of the organisation to account.

But leadership is also about the commitment that volunteer trustees make to the organisation. Turning up to meetings on time and reading briefing documents, considering issues carefully, asking sometimes difficult questions and ensuring that when decisions are needed they are made.

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

Exercise Control over our Organisation

The Governance Code identifies the appropriate controls that trustees must ensure are in place. These include internal financial controls but also compliance with legal and regulatory requirements. Charities are dealing with increasingly complex compliance requirements, everything from Data Protection legislation to Employment Law to Charity and Lobbying regulation.

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.

Be Transparent and Accountable

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).

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

As the Governance 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. 

Work Effectively as a Board

The trustees themselves have a responsibility to make sure that they are working effectively together as a board. The Governance 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.

Behave 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.

As a trustee you should also be aware of how you can safeguard and promote the charity’s reputation.

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

2. charities Regulator’s e-Learning for Trustees

3. read our Sustainable Communities Governance Guide

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