Various charity scandals over the years have placed the third sector, and the role trustees play in it, under a magnifying glass. And more trustees and patrons are using their positions to stand up for things they believe in. Just last month, the novelist Ahdaf Soueif resigning from the British Museum’s board over BP’s sponsorship of the arts amid a global climate crisis.
Such cases have brought public attention to the often opaque role of trustees and brought the evolving nature of their work into question. Generally speaking, trustees play a fundamental role in ensuring a charity operates as intended, and have a range of both legal and recommended responsibilities to abide by. These can include assessing finances, overseeing strategy or simply acting as a sounding board for the charity.
I have been a trustee at Kidasha, a charity working to improve the lives of children living in extreme poverty in Nepal, for six months. Having arrived from a corporate environment, I was keen to contribute commercial acumen to a charity doing good. Bolstered by the support of passionate people around me, and motivated by Kidasha’s objectives, I have, as expected, found the role incredibly enriching. I did not expect, however, that my role would be so much more than that, and largely difficult to define.
Trustees are not employees, but are called upon for their outsiders’ perspectives and ability to offer advice from the back seat on decisions big and small. The resignation of Soueif has stirred debate about the extent to which trustees represent and influence the work of their charity, and such cases remind trustees of the responsibility they have, not only to the charity, but also to wider society.
It will no longer do for charities and trustees alike to operate inside a third sector bubble. They must instead face the reality of today’s social and political climate, with a heightened focus on representing the interests of wider society.
Every sector would do well to remember that they are in the era of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, #CharitySoWhite and countless other movements. Social media has become a powerful tool in activism, and it makes sense for charities to use it to spread their reach. With the evolving nature of today’s social and political climate, trustees must also be willing to speak up and encourage their charities to be switched on and responsive, reflecting society as a whole.
In reflecting wider society, charities face complex issues that deserve to be discussed at length, and trustees are often called upon for their insights or advice on complex issues. Arguably, what charities need most from trustees is critical thought, which can’t always be achieved by a report or spreadsheet alone. That said, there’s a false assumption that as a trustee you need to know all the answers already. Doing your homework is important, but being able to recite the Trustee Act 2000 word for word isn’t a prerequisite.
Seeking advice and asking questions – especially difficult ones – opens up new avenues of discussion so every challenge and opportunity is fully explored. Charities want trustees who are fully engaged with their work and what the future holds. It’s important to be active, rather than a passive member of the team: appreciating each experience or discussion as a learning curve is an important outlook for any trustee to have.
Finally, the best thing I have come to understand about trusteeship is that people are truly what makes a charity. Scandals, social and political pressure are the products of an evolving wider society, which has placed a heightened importance on trustees using their platforms to speak up and speak out, in any form. And I welcome it gladly.
It was at a wine-tasting fundraiser where I heard Janice Miller, chief executive of Kidasha, speak so powerfully about her charity that I was motivated to put my hand up when she asked for trustees. I was taken by Kidasha’s unique ability to be small enough to be grounded, but big enough to be effective in the international community. In that sense, much like a charity trustee.
Marco Rimini is a trustee of Kidasha and has spent more than 30 years in the communications industry