Regulation with Rosie: Trustee responsibility

The Charity Commission's Rosie Chapman on finding safety in trustee numbers.

I haven't read the classics for some time, but there were distinct Dickensian overtones in one of our recently published inquiry reports about an old parish charity left adrift after one of its trustees died.

Since the death, the sole remaining trustee had been too busy to administer the charity. Accounts had remained uncompleted, investment decisions unmade and no new trustees had been appointed. It took five months to unravel the mess left behind and get the charity back on track.

We advise new charities that it is good practice to have at least three board members, but trustees resign, die or just lose active interest. There are about 11,500 charities for which we have details of only one trustee.

These charities, and any others that suspect their board numbers might be falling to below a workable minimum, should take active steps to ensure they have the trustee numbers they need to share the responsibility. A small pool of trustees will lack the balance of skills and experience required to run a charity. The fewer trustees there are, the more likely they are to feel overburdened and to quit. Near-solitary working can make trusteeship a lonely experience.

We don't recommend it, but a number of charities are also run by people with close family connections. Statistics show that divorce and break-ups are increasingly common and it is highly likely that partner trustees won't choose to continue their joint trusteeship in the aftermath.

Life is full of unexpected events. All charities should make contingency plans to ensure they don't become one-man bands at some stage down the road - and they should review these plans regularly. Recruiting new trustees needn't be onerous - our Finding New Trustees guidance should help - but it takes time.

- Rosie Chapman is executive director of policy and effectiveness at the commission.

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