At Work: Law and Governance - Opinion - Boards of trustees - know your place!

Judith Rich, the chair of Charity Appointments and the Diabetes Foundation, and a trustee of Relate and Reach

Charities must make clear the distinctions between the roles of trustees and management.

When an organisation appoints a new trustee, it must be assumed he or she has an interest in its aims and will want to get involved on a number of levels.

However, much is written about the difficulties of finding suitable trustees.

Outside most very large charities, trustee recruitment is often handled on a 'who you know' basis rather than through a formal approach. This can lead to confusion about the limits of the trustee's role.

Drawing a line

One of the areas that can get muddled is where the trustee role ends and management begins.

It is crucial that the staff of any charity - large or small - are left to get on with their job of running the organisation effectively. The board of trustees needs to restrict itself to formulating and implementing the charity's strategy.

What no trustee - however committed - should do is become too involved with operational decisions. This is particularly the case where a charity has trustees that use its services and are involved with its day-to-day work.

That's not to say that trustees can't be involved on more than one level - their practical involvement can be invaluable, and it is also beneficial to have people with front-line experience helping to mould the strategy.

But they need to distance themselves if there is any question of conflicting agendas.

If not, trustees who become too immersed in issues of practical management can find themselves in a position where staff expect them to act as allies rather than make objective judgements.

The chair needs to watch out for any such conflicts of loyalty and make sure trustees don't overstep the boundary. One solution might be to allocate each board member a specific area of the charity's work that they personally oversee and report on to the board. If these areas are rotated on a regular basis, the chair will be able to prevent trustees from becoming too involved with any one area.

Trustees will also find it easier to understand their roles if they take part in a formal training programme shortly after their appointment. Such a programme should be structured, but it must also be flexible enough that everyone can make time for it.

This is possible, even in small charities. Ongoing mentoring arrangements are also useful so the new trustee has someone with whom they can discuss concerns.

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