My attention was caught by a section of our firm's recent not-for-profit survey Income Trends 2013 that asked charity staff to what extent they considered their trustees to be engaged with their organisations.
The response showed that 33 per cent thought their trustees were "very engaged" and 47 per cent that they were "sufficiently engaged" - a total of 80 per cent. None felt that their trustees were not at all engaged.
These are challenging times for charities, but it is encouraging to know that a large majority of those surveyed were happy with the support they were receiving. A good trustee board is a significant asset for a charity, even if it is not shown on the balance sheet. It is worth investing in a board to make sure that it can set the tone and culture of a charity, ensure the charity's legal responsibilities are met - not least in financial matters - and help to set the direction of the organisation.
In small charities with few or no employees, the trustees often do most of the work; in larger ones, the trustees find they are less hands-on. The legal responsibilities of trustees do not change, because there is no reduction in liability for small charities. However, they should adjust how they approach and discharge these responsibilities as a charity grows.
When choosing a trustee, charities will often look for someone with a skill to offer in order to meet a specific need. For the larger charities, the process is similar to the recruitment of a director, with the same sort of agencies providing search-and-appointment services. For those with fewer resources, the decision is still important and it is worth getting trustees and senior staff involved.
The Charity Commission has a wealth of written guidance on its website including CC3: the Essential Trustee, which ought to be read by anyone who is considering becoming a trustee. But there can be a lot to take in and it is not always clear which issues are important and which are nice to have. So a good chair, working closely with the chief executive, will make sure that a strong welcome and an appropriate induction is available for a new trustee.
Many new trustees want to get involved straight away, because that is what they are used to in their own career experience. There might well be an immediate need that should be addressed - if so, it is generally good to dive straight in and help. However, it is best to use this as a learning opportunity rather than a means of changing everything at once. Charities tend to emphasise their missions rather than their efficiency, and internal reporting is often under-developed.
This provides an interesting challenge for new trustees. Should they insist on more businesslike reporting and on reports that are presented in a way they find more familiar? Or should they recognise that this is an area of difference between charities and other businesses, and that since resources cannot be spared to improve reporting, they will have to do without?
Peter Gotham is a partner at MHA MacIntyre Hudson