I always welcome the opportunity to spend a day in Worthing, the elegant Georgian seaside resort in West Sussex, so I readily accepted the invitation from Voluntary Action Worthing to give the keynote address at the launch of its trustee club this summer. It was a successful event, with more than 100 local trustees giving their enthusiastic backing to the new club.
When I retired from Navca in 2012 there were 70 trustee networks in England, enabling local charity trustees to enjoy peer support. Now I can find only seven that are still working effectively. Their declines mirrors the reduction in local authority financial support for councils for voluntary service and similar local infrastructure charities. Despite the importance of encouraging good governance of local charities, there is now little investment in support services for trustees, so the launch of the Worthing trustee club is a welcome exception to this trend.
The new trustee club will provide local trustees with free master classes, networking opportunities and a regular newsletter linking them to online resources. The funding that has made this possible is coming from the Sussex Community Foundation and chartered accountants MHA Carpenter Box.
I asked Kevin Richmond, chief executive of Sussex Community Foundation, why he had decided to fund the initiative. "Peer support can often be the best way to get realistic and pragmatic advice," he said, adding that new trustees often felt uncomfortable managing difficulties such as disputes with staff or even within the board. Chris Coopey, partner and practice director at MHA Carpenter Box, told me that because his organisation was often asked to make charitable donations or provide sponsorship he was always looking for a "win-win". "The trustee club proposition fitted well with our sector approach, was well thought through, professionally pitched and thus ticked the right boxes," he said. His firm will deliver several free master classes on subjects including "making the most of VAT" and "internal controls and reducing fraud risk". Coopey was quite open about his objective: "Our business is about making and maintaining relationships, which in the long term sees business coming our way."
There is a wider dimension to this initiative by VAW. Two years ago it lost its long-term local council funding to Brighton and Hove Community Works after the council decided to award the infrastructure support services contract by competitive tender. Without a grant from the council - the bedrock of every English CVS's funding - what future could there be for VAW? Jaqui Ball, the charity's chair, told me: "By focusing on trustee support we are starting to prove there can be a productive life for a CVS without local authority funding, provided we stay true to our values and seek to deliver what our local voluntary sector needs and deserves."
Julie Hunt, the charity's partnerships manager, added: "Feedback from trustees told us that many felt nervous about their responsibilities and were unaware of the wide range of free resources available to them."
I hope other local sector leaders will emulate this good practice on the south coast of England.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser