A Firm Hand On The Tiller: A Tribute To Charity Trustees

Posted on
14 Nov 2017
Ivan Cooper, Director of Public Policy at The Wheel

Charity Trustees’ Week is long overdue – trustees are great and their work has gone unacknowledged and unappreciated for far too long. Charity Trustees’ Week will play a small part in putting that to rights!

The Charities Regulator estimates that there are upwards of 48,000 people doing the voluntary work of unpaid trustees on the boards of Ireland’s charities. It’s the trustees of Ireland’s charities who are ultimately responsible for achieving their organisation’s charitable purpose – usually a vital support or service in their local community. It’s critically important work that often goes unseen and remains unsung.

Ireland’s charity trustees take on major responsibilities for no personal gain. When they do it well they provide energetic and inspirational leadership in their organisations and communities. They put in the time to understand the detail in reports and plans from management and hold management to account.  They immerse themselves month-in-and-month-out in the detail of budgets and reports and they work to communicate the difference their work is making in the lives of the communities they serve. It’s a very demanding role that requires a wide variety of skills to perform – and one of the challenges boards face is to make sure they have the right skills-mix on the board to succeed.

People have all sorts of motivations for becoming a trustee of a charity. Some, active in a cause they are passionate about, will establish a new charity. They face the same challenges any entrepreneur faces as they respond to the demands of the cause and set up an organisation to meet the need. Others may have become involved with an established charity that has paid staff to do the day-to-day work – their job is more about overseeing the staff and providing strategic direction. They face the same challenges as a director of a small or medium-sized firm. In both cases, however, the trustees are responsible for the good governance of the organisation. What does this mean?

The word ‘governance’ is derived from the ancient Greek word for the helmsman of a boat – and that gives us the insight that governing a charity is akin to steering a boat – it’s all about knowing the direction the organisation should be going in, the destination that we want to arrive at (the outcome for the community we are supporting) and having a firm hand on the tiller, so that the organisation stays under control and goes in the right direction. It’s the trustees’ job to make sure these tasks of governance are attended to.  Additionally, governing is about making sure that all the systems and processes that the organisation needs to function smoothly (think “ship-shape”) are in place, and that any regulations that apply (think employment law, health and safety law, charity regulations, company law requirements) are adhered to.  This is the compliance piece of the governance jigsaw.

But that’s not all – everyone has an interest in what charities are doing with the public funds entrusted to their care. In this sense Trustees are like guardians; they are minding something that is important to the wider community, and the mission they direct and the assets they control are not their personal, private property.  And just like guardians, they are responsible for the wellbeing of those in their charge, and for accounting to the wider community on whose behalf they act. So being transparent, accountable and subject to scrutiny are key aspects of effective trusteeship. Why do they take on the challenge?

For many, there is no choice, they are passionate about a cause and they feel it is their duty to respond.  For others, they simply want to make a contribution to society, and for others still, perhaps to give something back.  For all trustees, there is a great intrinsic reward in having played an essential part in ensuring their communities have the services and supports they need to thrive.

But we need to mind the guardians too! Ireland’s charities have been through a challenging time in recent years, and we need to make sure that the brave and courageous people who step forward to volunteer as board members and trustees are supported in the work.  So what can be done? The community, voluntary and charity sector needs to work with Government, the Charities Regulator, and the big funding authorities that benefit from trustees (such as the HSE and Tusla) to raise awareness of the value of charity trusteeship to society at large.

In addition:

  • good quality and accessible information should be available to trustees – from many sources and in many formats – on their role. Information should be in plain English.
  • Charities should make sure that training budgets are in place to support and develop trustees in their roles.
  • Charities should ensure that all trustees are provided with good quality induction by the charities they volunteer with.
  • Term limits should be put in place so that trustees know they can volunteer for a fixed period without there being an expectation that they serve for many, many years.
  • Professional bodies should work to develop more consistent and tailored advice for charity trustees – differentiated from the standard advice they provide to for-profit company directors: the challenge is different for trustees of charities – particularly the accountability challenge.
  • And finally, Charity Trustees Week should be developed further to promote and celebrate the huge contribution that our large army of trustees make every year!

Ireland’s first Trustees’ Week will take place from 13 to 17 November.  The week is being organised by the Charities Regulator, The Wheel, Charities Institute Ireland, Dóchas, the Carmichael Centre, Boardmatch Ireland and Volunteer Ireland. For more information visit www.charitiesregulatoryauthority.ie