Top tips for new trustees
Originally published: October 2017
If you’re thinking of becoming a charity trustee, you’re in good company: there are over 1 million in the UK alone.
There’s plenty of guidance out there on your legal responsibilities, but sometimes you can’t beat hearing from someone who’s been there before you.
MissionBox spoke to a number of trustees to ask them three burning questions.
What do you wish you’d known before you took on your first trustee role?
"That it takes at least a year to really understand a board, how it works, the dynamics and the quality of the board. Oh, and that lots of people want to help you achieve things!" - Leon Ward
"I wish I’d known that it’s OK to push for more clarity in the information you receive, before I lost a few hours of my life ploughing through reams of paperwork! A lot of charities seem to operate on a 'if in doubt, send more text' basis. In my trustee roles I’ve learned to ask what is needed from the board with every agenda item. Is it for information, discussion, or decision?" - Richard Sved
"Firstly, I wish more people knew that you don't have to reach consensus. So many trustees are hamstrung by trying to reach a decision acceptable to all. Secondly, operational updates from staff are useful, but you should use them to understand the long-term view. Making decisions isn't your role — it's to ask questions that lead the operational team to decisions." - Niall Smith
"That a big part of being an effective trustee means knowing when to trust your staff (as the experts), and when to question and delve deeper. This knowledge comes partly from your own experience, partly from deliberate efforts to understand the charity (spending time getting to know the context, staff, activities, people the charity exists for), and partly from looking at senior staff members’ training and experience." - Marie Nazombe
"How frustrating it can be when you don't have as much time as you'd like to give. It is really important to properly challenge the leaders of the organisation and to properly listen to them too. I was trustee of a charity which nearly ran out of funding — on reflection the issues had been flagged, but we had perhaps not taken sufficient responsibility or time to address it before it got out of hand, or scrutinise where money was being spent. It really is a lot more than just four meetings a year." - Meera Chadha
"That it's also important to have fun and celebrate your successes. Life is too short for monotonous board meetings, or those where approximately 30 seconds is spent discussing the good news, then it's back to doom and gloom for the remaining 59 minutes and 30 seconds... A motivated, energised, inspired board is a successful board!" - Victoria Hancock-Fell
What unexpected things have you learned or had to deal with?
"I was surprised at how quickly you form a bond with fellow trustees, and how you all unify to support the charity's mission and beneficiaries by supporting each other, the chair, the CEO and the wider team. And despite the professional skills you bring to the trustee role, you're constantly learning new skills and ways to improve as a trustee." - Claire Starza-Allen
"Becoming a 'jack of all trades,' especially when you are trustee of a small organisation with limited resources that’s mainly volunteer-led! You can end up doing everything, from performance management to booking venues for meetings to doing the minutes." - Ade Fashade
"That you have to remember what your rights are and what your role is. Trustees shouldn't be afraid of appropriately challenging the status quo." - Leon Ward
"I’ve learned to really consider all proposals carefully — not just rubber stamp whatever is presented. As the guardians of the charity’s mission you need to always act in its best interests." - Marie Nazombe
"How helpful it is for your day job. Whether it's learning more about management or leadership, deepening your networks in a sector or building your skills in a specific area. I also didn't really think that I would be able to add that much value but even at my first meetings I could offer contacts, advice and new information." - Meera Chadha
What’s your top tip for a new trustee?
"Be sure you are excellent at time management, and don't over-commit yourself in the role. And only become a trustee of an organisation that’s close to your personal principles." - Ade Fashade
"Take advantage of your newbie status to ask questions at every opportunity. You’ll probably find you’re asking questions more seasoned trustees don’t know the answers to either, but are reluctant to ask!" - Richard Sved
"I'd recommend thinking about three types of return on investment in your role as a trustee: does this make people love the organisation, does this make us money, does this make us famous. Have a balance of activities across those three, but remember that without money, the rest won't happen for long." - Niall Smith
"I could give a tip on being a good trustee, but actually I think there is a bigger job to be done: tell your story. Boards are not diverse. We need to do better at encouraging different people to step up and join boards. Your story could help do that." - Leon Ward
"Like any paid job, ensure you start with a clear role description. What will you be responsible for (and what will you not be responsible for), and how does that fit alongside other trustees and staff?" - Andy Smith
"Beware of mission drift. Frontline workers and volunteers can easily be distracted by the pressure of the every day, but it's your responsibility to ensure that the charity remains focused. Do you have a strategic plan for the next 3-5 years? If not, you probably should. When conversations arise about possible new projects, ask yourself: 'Is this in our long-term strategy?'" - Victoria Hancock-Fell
"Be willing to offer your expertise, time and contacts to further the cause. If you only have time to show up at a quarterly meeting and nothing more (no reading, no thinking, no additional meetings or networking), maybe don’t be a trustee. And keep an eye on the skills needed in the board as a whole. If finances aren’t your thing, make sure at least two or three other board members are on top of the figures — by recruiting new ones if needs be."- Marie Nazombe
“Throw yourself into it as soon as possible. There's a tendency to think everyone else knows more, but your experience will always be useful. And set aside time — it's very difficult when you've got a full-time (or just full on!) job/life, so put aside a few hours a week or a half day a month to catch up.” - Meera Chadha