Editorial: Trustees are the heart of charity

It's easy to skimp on governance, says Stephen Cook, but when things go wrong it's usually the fault of the trustee board

Stephen Cook, editor
Stephen Cook, editor

The role of trustees is in the limelight at the moment, not least because of the intense debate about the payment of trustees in large charities. Last week was also the third annual Trustees' Week, organised by the Charity Commission and a wide variety of sector umbrella and infrastructure bodies.

It's always hard to assess the value and effect of these 'weeks', which seem to come thick and fast: it was Volunteers' Week in June, and last week was Compact Week as well as Trustees' Week. The Charity Commission marked Trustees' Week by publishing research among new charity applicants that pointed up some familiar concerns - shortage of trustees, recruitment through personal connections, lack of diversity and insufficient attention to risk.

Reviews of last year's Trustees' Week events posted on the commission website show some successes: more than 100 people attended events in Bristol and Peterborough sponsored by commercial firms; and 26 stalls were taken at a trustee recruitment event in Richmond, Surrey. But other events are hard to assess because no reviews have been posted. One session, called A Survival Guide for Trustees, was cancelled "due to poor uptake", but one coffee morning was apparently so riveting it went on all day.

Being a trustee can be by turns infuriating, inspiring, exhausting and rewarding, as our contributor Elizabeth Balgobin has described in her recent columns. Research and anecdotal evidence suggest that the nature and practice of trusteeship varies enormously from the lamentable to the excellent: it may depend on the size of the charity and the individuals involved. Governance is as variable as the sector itself: relationships between trustees and staff, and the question of who does and decides what, are often a daily battleground.

But trustees remains the key to a properly functioning charitable sector. Amid the pressures of daily work and competing priorities, there is always a temptation to skimp on governance - to cross your fingers and let it take care of itself. But charities do that at their peril - when things go wrong, it is almost always because of shortcomings in trustee oversight.

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