Being a trustee - how we make a difference

This week is national Trustees’ Week, an annual event which showcases the great work that trustees do.  It also highlights opportunities for people from all walks of life to get involved and make a difference.

The Foundation’s first female Chair, Pam Burn, writes about her experience of being a trustee, how charity governance has evolved over the last 50 years and what skills you might need if you are considering joining the board of a charity.

People often ask me what being a trustee means?  It is certainly very different these days that’s for sure!  I first became a trustee in the early 1970s when I was in my late 20s.  It was with our regional Save the Children group and there were no formalities of any kind; you offered your services, turned up and, if they decided you were any good at something, then you might be asked to take on the secretary or treasurer role or even the chair at some point.

Since then I have been a trustee in many different organisations in the UK and in Hong Kong where we lived for 12 years.  During that time, I have seen many different operations and expectations of the trustee role.  They all had one thing in common – the time you gave was freely given and the main reward was that of personal satisfaction.  A trustee was fulfilling a role or shouldering a responsibility for the provision of a service that would perhaps not otherwise exist.

Pam Burn is a Governor of the Heritage Foundation

It’s almost 50 years since I took up that role, and during that time, I have seen a lot of change, particularly legal changes.  This is inevitable, especially when you are dealing with public funds, either donated or endowed (as with the Heritage Foundation) and for potentially vulnerable people.  The biggest of the changes came about in 1995 with the publication of the Nolan Report which followed the so-called cash-for-questions enquiry.  The report laid down Seven Principles of Public Life and these have become part of the fabric of the lives of many, providing standards, or a code, by which all public and voluntary sectors are expected to abide. These principles include selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

Read more about each of these principles.

Development of good governance in charities

As far as charities are concerned, many adopted these basic principles long before a Code of Ethics was formulated by the Charity Commission.  I was involved in the early discussions about translating the Nolan Principles into an all-embracing code when I was at the Royal College of Physicians. Within a short period of time, good governance guides and codes of conduct became commonplace both in public service and within charities.  Everyone was expected to sign up to them if they wished to take up a position as a trustee within an organisation. 

The first official Code of Governance which embraced all the principles of the work of charity trustees was produced in 2005 and updated in 2010. Then in 2012 the first version of The Essential Trustee was published which incorporated everything you needed to know about being and working as a trustee.  It has been updated several times since and it is, or should be, required reading for everyone wishing to go down this road.  It is our ‘bible’ without doubt, for very good reasons:

It’s vital that charities and their boards get their heads around governance. Following good governance practices, not just paying lip service, but really understanding and applying them, could have averted many of the bad headlines of the last two years. It’s more than ticking the boxes. It’s about attitudes and culture, whether a charity puts its values into practice. It’s about how trustees make decisions and how well they understand what’s going on. We have all seen the consequences of failing to do that.

But more than avoiding bad, it’s about realising potential, understanding and maximising the difference you make. Everything in good governance should point to your mission and your strategy for achieving it.

In other sectors – the corporate sector, housing and sport - there are potential financial consequences for not complying with the relevant governance code. The Charity Governance Code doesn’t work like that. It’s not enforced by the regulator. The rule is not ‘comply or explain’ but ‘apply or explain’, recognising the diversity of the sector. The same core principles apply to all charities, but they apply in different ways in terms of tailored good practice.

What is a Trustee?

So, what is a trustee?  Trustees are the people in charge of a charity. They help to make the UK the sixth most giving country in the world.  In England alone it is estimated that there are some 850,000 trustees working in large, medium and small organisations. Some are responsible for three or four figure sums of money and some have responsibility for multi-million pounds budgets and/or endowed foundations like the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation. 

Trustees provide the strategic framework within which the charity operates and ensure it stays within its charitable objects laid down in the constitutional document which gives its formal purpose.  Although they mostly delegate the day to day responsibility to a CEO and senior management team, the Board of Trustees is the ultimate authority and holds ultimate responsibility for the security and wellbeing of the organisation. 

Not everyone can become a Trustee and there are strict rules laid down which explain the criteria.

Broadway Gardens

What type of trustee do you want to be?

I believe the best trustees are ‘supportive challengers’. They ask questions in a supportive but objective way, offering help without disenfranchising or worse, patronising professional executives and senior managers. They keep themselves proactively informed by reading reports and staying abreast of developments in relevant fields. They take their responsibilities and credibility seriously and work hard to build trust with fellow board members and staff.

Here are some simple steps that I think can help someone to become a more effective trustee:

  1. Build relationships between meetings – it’s tempting to see your role in the limited context of the board meeting, but being a trustee is much more than that. Ask the senior managers if and how you could add value, by imparting knowledge, making introductions or thanking staff, volunteers or donors.  This is very much harder to do remotely as we currently are, so email, texts and remote chats are a necessity.
  2. Stay informed – don’t just read your board papers (but please DO read these papers in advance of meetings!). Proactively strive to better understand the charity sector and stay up to date on developments affecting the specific cause of your charity. It can be tempting to stick with the area in which you have most expertise or interest to the exclusion of other matters.  This can seriously bore your colleagues!   If you’re not sure where to look, ask the senior managers for guidance. 
  3. Don’t meddle – understand the difference between executive and non-executive responsibility and don’t cross the line. By getting too involved in the operational or tactical detail you will disenfranchise the executive and senior managers.  If you feel there may be a really serious problem, tackle it with the CEO or Chair privately, not in front of the entire board and other senior staff members.  Remember there are sometimes matters which cannot be discussed in ‘open court’ and you may not be privy to everything. 
  4. Be objective – as you get to know your fellow trustees and senior managers you might start to normalise the status quo, accepting existing ways of thinking and working. It is important to maintain objectivity throughout your tenure so that you can identify issues and areas of concern or celebration that people more embedded in the organisation might miss.
  5. Be constructive – as a trustee it is your responsibility to challenge thinking and assumptions. But do so in a courteous and constructive way. Think about how your approach and style and the impact you have on the executive and senior managers at board meetings. Do you criticise and deflate, or coach and support? Your job is to get the very best out of people, so think carefully about the environment you create.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. Ask the chair, fellow trustees, the CEO and senior managers how you are doing against these criteria and how you can improve. Trustees should not be immune from performance management and evaluation. It’s the ultimate way to lead by example, hold yourself accountable and make the most of your role as a trustee.

What is happening at the Foundation?

As a board, we are constantly asking ourselves the question: could we be doing this better and more effectively?  In 2020 we agreed to undertake a full governance review.  This was undoubtedly an onerous task because of the way in which the Foundation is constructed constitutionally via an Act of Parliament, not to mention the pandemic making things more complicated.  However, we believe it was necessary as, apart from minor changes, there has been no substantial review since the Act was passed in 1995. Much has changed in the world since that time – socially, economically, legally, politically and just about every other way.  One of the basic tenets of good governance is that the board is always reassessing how things are done and whether assumptions and processes are valid or a hindrance.  You can read about the changes we have made to our governance here.

If you would like to know more about our Board of Trustees, you can find out more here.

Read more about Trustees’ Week as well as further information on how to become a trustee.