New Year is well known as the time when people begin making resolutions to change their lives for the better. For those looking for something rewarding and different, becoming involved in the charity sector could be ideal.
Donating to a charitable cause has a number of emotional and social benefits which aid wellbeing, and many charities are grateful for every donation, no matter how big or small.
However, rather than simply donating funds (which is of course important), a hugely valuable way to help a cause you believe in might be to become a charity trustee.
Charities are often keen to encourage people who are new to the sector to get involved, such as young people, or those from different backgrounds. This can bring a different perspective and, in many cases, can also expand the skillset of the board. The individual, while not paid, gets to make a real difference in the future and running of a charity, while receiving valuable experience.
Before taking the plunge and becoming a charity trustee, it is worth understanding the responsibilities involved. One primary responsibility is that a trustee should ensure that all decisions by the organisation put the needs of the charity first and the trustee should bring their skills to the decision-making process.
With this in mind, a charity should select its board based on any gaps in skills or perspective – perhaps seeking out people strong in law, finance, communications and commerce, or who will improve the age or gender diversity of the board.
While the professional skills brought to the table are important, there is huge value to the trustee themselves in terms of professional development, not to mention the ‘feel-good’ factor of doing something that will benefit others.
A trustee will not normally be involved with the day-to-day running of a charity, but will instead help to form the strategy to which the staff work. This will involve supporting and, where necessary, challenging the chief executive to manage effectively, while safeguarding the charity’s reputation.
The role also requires commitment, responsibility and enthusiasm. While every charity is different, many trustee boards will meet four to eight times a year and there may be an expectation of involvement on one or more subcommittees and/or project work. It’s a big commitment, but definitely rewarding and worth pursuing.
The rules of good governance apply to any organisation, whatever sector it works in. Charities, as with any other body, have to be legally savvy. It is here that trustees play an essential role. In particular, those involved in running a charity must understand exactly what is stated in its constitution, make sure that it has a clear strategy in place and that its work and goals are in line with its vision.
If it is not doing precisely what it stated it would do in the constitution, it runs the risk of being challenged or investigated by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR). It might also face reputational issues or exposure in the media, so keeping planning on track and ensuring good governance are essential.
The OSCR can penalise charities who fail in any way. However, it is also a very supportive and positive organisation which sets out to guide and help charities while maintaining public faith in the sector. The OSCR website is a really useful resource which includes plenty of help and guidance for its members. A good port of call is its guidance document Being a Charity in Scotland, which sets out what charity trustees must consider in order to meet legal requirements, ensure they are well-run and prevent any issues before they emerge. Ultimately, trustees are responsible for ensuring good governance within the charity and the buck stops with them.
The charitable sector and its regulation can be a minefield, particularly when an organisation is small and passionately focused on achieving its aims. However, it is important not to lose sight of governance and trustees’ duties, as these should make the charity both more effective and importantly, more attractive to funders.
The fundamentals are the same, whatever the size of the charity: clarity, governance and accountability are as important for a small charity as they are for the larger, high profile organisations.
Lianne Lodge is legal director at Gillespie Macandrew.