The skills of trustees and the quality of their relationship with staff and stakeholders in a charity make them a guiding force behind charitable organisations, steering them towards their missions and goals.

We have seen the best and the worst in our sector over time and in this guide, we will explore the multifaceted role of a charity trustee, examining their responsibilities, the significance of diversity, the benefits, challenges, and the process of becoming one. So, whether you're considering becoming a trustee or seeking insights into the wonderful world of nonprofit leadership, we hope that this guide has you covered.

What is a Trustee of a Charity? An overview of roles and responsibilities

The word ‘trustee’ itself says so much, that those who take on the role have to live up to the trust placed in them and that they should be guided by the mission of the charity, one which they hold in trust. As Mahatma Ghandi once put it “a trustee has no heir but the public.”

The people who are charity trustees are therefore people who hold a position of trust and responsibility in a charitable organisation. Trustees play a pivotal role in overseeing the organisation's activities, ensuring compliance with legal and ethical standards, and making strategic decisions to advance the organisation's mission. They are essentially the custodians of the charity's purpose, working to ensure that its activities align with its stated goals.

Trustees will play this role, typically, as a member of a charity Board that has the ultimate responsibility for decisions that the charity makes and has a duty under law to carry out this responsibility in an appropriate manner. Taken together, this all comes under a single word ‘governance’. It is serious, it is important, and it can be something that is risky to get wrong. And did we mention, trustees are typically unpaid?

And for many charities, there is more. Trustees are not just unpaid counterparts to Directors (and to an extent shareholders too) in business, but they will often be involved in voluntary activity in the everyday life of the charity. That might be helping to fundraise in larger charities or doing the administration in smaller charities. In Scotland, for example, two thirds of charities are run entirely by volunteers, with no staff at all.

And often trustees bring with them a direct experience of the life of the charity, as a beneficiary, as a volunteer or as a member of staff. One academic, Howard Glennister from the LSE, has described this mix as a form of ambiguity that can be a distinctive advantage of the charity governance model. But it doesn’t always make things simple, and to be effective, trustees have to put other roles to one side when it comes to the decisions that they make.

So, the roles and responsibilities of charity trustees are varied and often encompass:

Governance and strategy

Trustees are responsible for setting the organisation's strategic direction. They define its long-term goals, mission, and vision, and ensure that all activities are aligned with these aspects.

Financial oversight

Trustees monitor the financial health of the organisation, approve budgets, and ensure that resources are allocated efficiently to achieve the charity's objectives.


Trustees ensure that the organisation adheres to all legal and regulatory requirements. This includes compliance with tax laws, reporting obligations, and other legal obligations specific to nonprofits.

Risk management

Trustees assess and manage potential risks that the organisation might face, both financially and reputationally. They put measures in place to mitigate these risks.

Advocacy and representation

Trustees may represent the charity in various forums, building relationships with stakeholders and advocating for the organisation's cause.

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The importance of Trustees in charitable organisations: How to find and develop talent

There are close to one million trustees in the UK. This makes for an extraordinary resource for the common good, but it is not a perfect mix. Over time, the composition of trustees has been weighted away from women, the working class and people of colour and there are belatedly now very real efforts across the sector to find a better balance.

For individual charities, finding and nurturing the right talent is crucial to ensuring effective governance and sustainable growth. When selecting potential trustees, therefore consider individuals who bring diverse skills, experiences, and perspectives to the table. A diverse board can enrich decision-making processes and bring fresh ideas to the forefront.

To find and develop talented trustees:


Engage with your professional network, attend industry events, and connect with individuals who are passionate about the organisation's cause.

Make the ask

The number one reason that people become trustees is simple – it is because someone asked them! So, when you find good people who can add value to what you do, make the ask.

Skills assessment

Identify the skills and expertise needed on the board, such as finance, marketing, legal, and fundraising. Seek individuals who complement the existing skill set.

Training and mentorship

Offer training and mentorship opportunities to new trustees. This helps them understand their roles and responsibilities and provides them with a platform to enhance their leadership skills.

Open recruitment

It can be helpful to turn to open recruitment for trustee roles and the evidence suggests that there is more diversity in the people who come forward when this happens. A good platform at a national level for recruiting trustees is Reach Volunteering.

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The role of a Charity Trustee: Key duties and best practices

There is joy in being a trustee, moments of sheer fulfilment and pride, but I wouldn’t want you to see it as an easy ride. You have some very real responsibilities as a trustee and I suspect that it is all too common for charities to be so grateful that people are willing to be trustees, that they don’t take the extra step to set high expectations of how they can be good or great as trustees.

Being a charity trustee is both an honour and a responsibility. As with those working in the public sector (which has a set of Nolan Principles as an established reference point), to be effective, charity trustees should be able to live up to some key duties and best practices:

Duty of care

Trustees must act with reasonable care and diligence, making informed decisions and considering all relevant factors before making choices that affect the organisation.

Duty of loyalty

Trustees must prioritise the interests of the charity above personal or external interests, avoiding conflicts of interest and maintaining the organisation's integrity.

Duty of compliance

Trustees must ensure that the organisation operates within the legal and constitutional boundaries of its mission and purpose, in line with regulation and avoiding activities that could undermine its charitable status.


Effective trustees work collaboratively with fellow board members, staff, and stakeholders. Open communication and the ability to work as a team are essential.

Strategic vision

Trustees should contribute to the organisation's strategic planning and vision, aligning their decisions with the long-term goals of the charity.

How many Trustees should a charity have? Factors to consider

The optimal number of trustees for a charity depends on various factors, including the size of the organisation, its complexity, and the diversity of skills required on the board. A smaller charity might have a leaner board, while a larger and more multifaceted organisation may benefit from a larger board with a broader range of expertise.

Key considerations when determining the number of trustees:

Skills gap

Assess the skills and expertise needed to effectively govern the charity. Ensure that the board has a mix of talents that cover areas like finance, legal, marketing, and programmatic expertise.

Operational needs

Consider the organisation's operational requirements and the workload that trustees need to handle. An overloaded board may lead to inefficiencies.


A smaller board can facilitate more engaged discussions, while a larger board may offer a wider range of perspectives.

Resource allocation

Consider the availability of resources, including time and funding, for board activities and training.

In some charitable sectors, such as grassroots community sports, it can be the same people who step up as trustees year in, year out. It would be nice in principle to have term limits, so that trustees don’t stay as trustees too long – so remaining fresh and independent – but in practice, it can be hard to make it work. Challenges like this are common and good governance is therefore also the art of the possible.

Young Trustees in Charitable organisations: Why diversity matters

The inclusion of young trustees in charitable organisations is gaining momentum, and for good reason. Young trustees bring fresh perspectives, innovative ideas, and a deep understanding of evolving technologies and communication strategies. Their inclusion fosters intergenerational collaboration, ensuring that the charity remains relevant and effective in a changing world.

Diversity among trustees, including age diversity, can lead to:


Young trustees often bring creative solutions and innovative strategies that can help the organisation adapt to new challenges.


Younger trustees can represent the interests and concerns of younger demographics, ensuring the organisation remains connected to its target audience.


The presence of young trustees can attract younger volunteers, donors, and supporters who resonate with the organisation's leadership.

Succession Planning

Introducing young trustees helps address the issue of board succession, ensuring a continuous pipeline of leadership talent.

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The benefits of being a Trustee of a charity: Personal and professional development opportunities

While being a trustee requires commitment and responsibility, it also offers a range of personal and professional benefits:

Skill enhancement

Trustees develop leadership, strategic planning, decision-making, and communication skills that are transferable to other aspects of life and work.

Network building

Trustees connect with professionals from diverse sectors, expanding their network and opening doors to new opportunities.

Impactful work

Trustees play a pivotal role in driving social change and making a positive impact on their communities.

Personal fulfilment

The satisfaction of contributing to a meaningful cause and seeing tangible outcomes can be deeply fulfilling.

Learning opportunities

Trustees are exposed to various aspects of nonprofit management, from fundraising to legal compliance, providing valuable learning experiences.

Many of the business experts who coach charities through our Pilotlight 360 programme are considering trustee roles but come to Pilotlight to learn more about the charity sector first. During the programme they explore, learn and develop their skills in how to contribute value to charitable organisations, leveraging their individual talents, skills, and experience while developing key skills to support the next stage in their career, whether that be, becoming a Trustee, a Non-Executive Direction (NED), or moving into a portfolio career.

Our Pilotlighter community reports better understanding of other perspectives, greater awareness of different leadership styles, and improvements in coaching skills, professional networks and personal wellbeing.

The importance of training and support for Charity Trustees

One thing to remember when bringing on new trustees who have not played the role before is to invest in them, by offering training and support that can help them to see what their role is. Where things go wrong, such as in the recent case of the Captain Tom Foundation, where the regulator investigated the role of trustees, it can be because there is not sufficient clarity and understanding of the unusual role and responsibility of being a trustee.

But for all trustees to excel in their roles, there will be a benefit in looking at ongoing training and support. The nonprofit landscape is dynamic, with changing regulations, technologies, and best practices. Training helps trustees stay informed and adapt to these changes effectively.

Ways to provide training and support:


Provide comprehensive onboarding sessions for new trustees to familiarise them with the organisation's mission, goals, and governance structure.

Workshops and seminars

Organise workshops on governance, fundraising, legal compliance, and other relevant topics to enhance trustees' knowledge.


Pair new trustees with experienced mentors who can guide them in their roles and offer insights based on their own experiences.

Continuing education

Encourage trustees to attend conferences, webinars, and courses to stay updated on industry trends and best practices.

Professional advice

If you have a financial auditor or legal advice partner, they can of course be a helpful source of guidance and advice on the role of trustees.

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How to become a Trustee of a charity: steps and requirements

If the idea of being a charity trustee resonates with you, here's how you can embark on the journey:


Understand the mission and goals of charitable organisations you're interested in. Research their board structure and requirements.


Attend events, conferences, and workshops related to the sector. Connect with current trustees and professionals to learn more about the role.

Skills assessment

Identify your skills and expertise that align with the needs of the organisation. Highlight how your background can contribute to the board's effectiveness.


Express your interest in becoming a trustee by submitting an application or expressing your intent to the organisation's board.


If shortlisted, you may be invited for an interview to discuss your qualifications, motivations, and alignment with the organisation's mission.

Training and onboarding

If selected, undergo training and orientation to understand your role, responsibilities, and the organisation's operations.

If you’re ready to take the plunge find a vacancy to be a charity trustee.

The challenges and rewards of being a Trustee of a charity

While the role of a charity trustee is rewarding, it comes with its share of challenges:

Time commitment

Trustees often need to dedicate a significant amount of time to board meetings, committee work, and strategic planning.


Making tough decisions that balance the organisation's mission, resources, and stakeholder interests can be challenging.

Legal and regulatory complexity

Navigating the legal landscape of nonprofit governance requires vigilance and understanding. For more information on the requirements for trustees from the UK government take a look at this handy guide from the Charity Commission.

Conflict resolution

Addressing conflicts of interest or differing viewpoints among board members requires diplomacy and effective communication. Take a look at our tips on how to be a better board member.

Balancing responsibilities

Trustees must juggle their role as volunteers with their personal and professional commitments.

The rewards, however, typically far outweigh the challenges:


Trustees witness the direct impact of their decisions on the organisation's growth and the communities it serves.


The opportunity to learn about diverse aspects of nonprofit management is intellectually enriching.


Trustees build a network of like-minded professionals and leaders, opening doors to collaboration and future opportunities.

Personal fulfilment

The knowledge that you're contributing to positive change and helping those in need is incredibly fulfilling.

Before joining any charity as a trustee, I would encourage you to do your own due diligence, so that you start with a good understanding of the challenges and opportunities if you do take up the role.

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Empowering the next generation of nonprofit leaders

The voluntary sector thrives through participation and the opportunity to bring new skills and a more diverse set of people into the role of trustee will perhaps be the single most important variable in the success of the sector overall.

The role of trustee is a demanding one and of course that can put some people off. There are concerns over the level of volunteering in the UK, even if we, among others, have helped to show that skills-based volunteering is on the rise.  

Conversely, there will be other people who see the value in becoming a trustee and welcome the responsibilities as proof of and appropriate to how important the role is.

At Pilotlight, we believe that we should have high expectations of charity trustees as well as high expectations of our ability to bring in diverse and talented people into the role. It is an old motto of Pilotlight that ‘great causes deserve great talent’.

A good trustee is two things - wise and compassionate. Whether you're a seasoned trustee or considering stepping into this leadership role, remember these two qualities. And remember too that being a trustee is not just about overseeing an organisation—it's about being a driving force for positive change in the world.

Do more for your world?

If you're considering taking up a trustee role but want to learn more about the charity sector first, our Pilotlight 360 programme can be a great opportunity to develop your skills before you take the plunge. 

Join our mission to give charities the help they need.

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