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Navigating the complex landscape of social impact

Charities play an inspiring role in meeting social needs and in fostering positive change. At the heart of these organisations are trustees, individuals who carry the responsibility of steering the charity toward its mission.

They won’t typically do so on their own. Only in the smallest charities, where there are no paid staff, will it be trustees doing all of the work on a voluntary basis. That is still a big number – according to NCVO just under half of all charities (47%) have an income of less than £10,000. In charities with staff, governance and leadership co-exist and the role of trustees is to enable, nurture and challenge staff leadership of the work that the charity takes on.

While trusteeship is often seen as an altruistic role, the complexities of the modern charitable landscape caution against setting the bar low for what they can be expected to do. They have a nuanced role in relation to governance, compliance, and strategic decision-making. In this article, we delve into the vital importance of training and support for charity trustees, exploring how well-equipped and supported trustees can significantly enhance the impact and sustainability of charitable organisations.

Understanding the trustee role

To recap, it's good to remember the multifaceted role that charity trustees play. Trustees are the custodians of a charity's mission, responsible for its strategic direction, financial stewardship, and legal compliance. But, in coming to be trustees, they may also have experience as a volunteer, a beneficiary, a funder, a member or as an employee.

Professor Howard Glennister of the London School of Economics once suggested that the distinctive nature of voluntary organisations is their ambiguity. What he meant was that people can play different roles and having these different points of lived experience on the Board as trustees can be helpful, although the health warning, as with any participatory model, is that it can also at times be a source of tension or conflict.

Either way, all trustees are expected to act in the best interests of the organisation, ensuring its activities align with its charitable objectives.

The evolving landscape

The charitable sector is dynamic and continually evolving. Changes in legislation, shifts in public expectations, and the emergence of new challenges demand adaptability and resilience from charity trustees. As charities increasingly engage with complex issues, such as social justice, environmental sustainability, and global health crises, the role of trustees has become more intricate, requiring a diverse skill set.

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The importance of training

Legal and regulatory compliance

Training provides trustees with a comprehensive understanding of the legal and regulatory framework governing charities. This includes responsibilities under charity law, financial regulations, and reporting requirements.

Informed trustees are better equipped to navigate compliance issues, reducing the risk of legal challenges and ensuring the charity's activities align with legal standards.

Governance and strategic planning

Training helps trustees grasp the principles of good governance, emphasising transparency, accountability, and effective decision-making.

Strategic planning is a cornerstone of successful charities. Trustees, through training, can develop the skills to contribute meaningfully to the development and execution of strategic plans.

Financial literacy

Trustees bear the responsibility of financial oversight. Training in financial literacy enables trustees to scrutinise budgets, understand financial reports, and make informed decisions regarding the charity's fiscal health.

Financial acumen is crucial for effective resource allocation, risk management, and ensuring long-term sustainability.

Risk management

Charities operate in an environment filled with uncertainties and risks. Training equips trustees with the skills to identify, assess, and mitigate risks effectively. It can also give them the confidence to take on risks, where this is what is needed to advance the mission of the charity.

A well-trained board can implement robust risk management strategies, safeguarding the charity's reputation and ensuring its resilience in the face of challenges.

Ethical considerations

Trustees must navigate ethical dilemmas inherent in the charitable sector. Training helps them develop a deep understanding of ethical considerations and equips them to make principled decisions.

Ethical governance is integral to maintaining public trust, a vital asset for charities reliant on donor support.

The importance of support

Mental and emotional wellbeing

Serving as a trustee can be emotionally taxing, especially when dealing with issues like poverty, inequality, or health crises. Support mechanisms, such as mentorship and counselling services, contribute to trustees' mental wellbeing.

Encouraging an open and supportive environment helps trustees cope with the emotional challenges associated with their roles.

Peer-to-peer learning

Support networks foster peer-to-peer learning, enabling trustees to share experiences, insights, and best practices.

Collaboration among trustees promotes a culture of continuous learning and ensures that the board benefits from the collective wisdom of its members.

Continual professional development

The charitable sector is dynamic, with new challenges and opportunities emerging regularly. Support mechanisms facilitate ongoing professional development for trustees, enabling them to stay abreast of industry trends and best practices.

Professional development contributes to trustees' effectiveness, ensuring they bring fresh perspectives and innovative solutions to the board.

Access to resources and expertise

Support networks provide trustees with access to resources, such as training materials, toolkits, and expert advice.

Collaborative support structures allow charities to tap into a wealth of collective knowledge, enhancing the overall capacity of the board.

Succession Planning

Effective support includes planning for trustee succession. Ensuring a seamless transition of leadership is crucial for maintaining organisational stability and effectiveness.

Support mechanisms assist in identifying and nurturing potential future trustees, creating a pipeline of capable individuals committed to the charity's mission.

One bad habit that the UK charity sector has is to undervalue training. There are long-standing concerns about leadership in the sector. Charity trustees surveyed in 2017 reported a lack of relevant legal, digital, fundraising, marketing, and campaigning skills at board level. Research by Pro Bono Economics for its Law Family Commission, reported that the charity sector is three times less likely to invest in leadership development than the wider economy, with an estimated average of 0.5% of annual income spent on it. What a waste of good potential leaders.

In an era where charities confront increasingly complex challenges, well-prepared and supported trustees are essential for organisational success. Training equips trustees with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate legal complexities, ensure financial sustainability, and contribute meaningfully to strategic decision-making. Meanwhile, support mechanisms, ranging from peer networks to mental health resources, foster a resilient and effective trustee community.

Charities are only as strong as their leadership, and investing in the training and support of trustees is an investment in the very core of an organisation's ability to create positive change. As the charitable sector faces into growing needs and increasing stretch, trustees should equip themselves with the right tools and the right support to help charities evolve.

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Looking to become a trustee?

Many of our Pilotlighters join because they’re looking to become a trustee but want to learn more about the charity sector first. Through our Pilotlight 360 programme you can hone your skills of providing independent insight, guidance and challenge.

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