Kevin Curley: More clarity is needed about role of trustees

We need to create a culture in which induction and training for trustees is seen as essential, writes the voluntary sector adviser

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

Poor governance standards have been evident for years in some of the local charities I am involved with, both as a trustee and an adviser. Sometimes I have seen little effort to comply with constitutions as trustees fail to declare conflicts of interest or even neglect to hold annual general meetings. Charities with annual incomes below £25,000 are no longer required to have independent examinations and, as a result, I've seen honorary treasurers taking short-cuts - failing, for example, to reconcile book figures with bank statements.

In 2002, in his report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Strengthening the Governance of Small Community and Voluntary Organisations, Kevin Nunnan pointed out that "there is no universally agreed definition of 'governance'. It remains an elusive concept and can be viewed simultaneously in several, sometimes contradictory ways." I've lost count of the number of times I've argued with trustees of small charities employing staff that our duty is not to support the chief executive but to be a critical friend and hold him or her to account for the use of the charity's resources.

The lack of clarity Nunnan mentions is particularly evident in some local infrastructure charities, where trustees see themselves as representing a member organisation that nominated them for election to the board. Indeed, in some councils for voluntary service, trustees sign in and state which organisation they are from, as though they are attending a forum meeting rather than a trustee board.

A decade ago there was a rapid growth in the establishment of local charity trustee networks. The lead was usually taken by the CVS, encouraged by the now defunct national Charity Trustee Networks. Under this, trustees were brought together regularly and given the opportunity to share good practice and support each other with governance problems.

At one time 120 networks existed, but that number has now shrunk to 16, loosely supported by the Small Charities Coalition. I have not been able to find an evaluation of the networks' impact, although Mike Forster, chair of the Pickering Family Centre in North Yorkshire, told me: "The meetings were supportive and enjoyable, but no more than 40 people ever came along in an area where there must be at least 2,000 trustees.

"I always suspected those who came were the most able and committed, not those in the greatest need of help."

Support services for local charities and their trustees are in decline as funding for CVS and other infrastructure bodies has been cut by local councils and clinical commissioning groups. Improvements in governance standards can come in part only from the Charity Commission demanding more from charities. For example, why not ask charities to include in their annual returns a description of their trustee induction procedures and training programmes?

We also need higher-profile online guidance services for trustees and platforms where they can share problems and solutions. We need to create a culture in which induction and training for trustees is seen as essential, mirroring the support available for new governors of local schools.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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