Penny Wilson: How do we help the accidental trustees?

Small local organisations are littered with people who have fallen into governance and don't know their responsibilities - so how can they be better supported?

Penny Wilson
Penny Wilson

The other day, a fellow charity worker and I got talking to a trustee who didn’t even know he was a trustee.

The fellow we met was an older guy, recently retired, who'd ended up on the management committee of a men's shed in a nearby town. It was very interesting to chat with him to get his perspective on what was involved and how he’d come to do it.

Sheds, for those who haven’t come across the model, are charitable clubs for men, particularly older men who want to do something useful with their hands. They’re mostly about tackling loneliness and improving physical health and activity among isolated older people. It’s a lovely model, and it's growing fast.

This guy had gone along after a period of ill health. He’d been feeling quite low and thought it might be good for his peace of mind if he could potter about and make things. 

He didn’t really want to organise anything. He just noticed that there wasn’t a record of who'd paid their subs, so he got that working. Then he spotted a couple of ways to cut down the heating bills, so he got that going. He'd been a school governor for a bit, so he made a couple of suggestions about how they organised meetings. Before he knew it, he was in charge.

My friend and I asked a few questions. Was the organisation for personal profit? No. Did it exist to improve the public’s health and wellbeing? Yes. Did it have a turnover of £5,000? He didn’t know. Maybe. Couldn’t rule it out.

"You should probably see if you need to register with the Charity Commission," I suggested. 

"Oh," he said. "Who are they?"

It’s a useful reminder that most of our sector is like this: networks of tiny organisations, run by people who are interested in woodwork, tea and a chat, who often don’t know they’re trustees. They don’t know what the Charity Commission is. They don’t know about trustee duties. It’s not clear to me that they ought to have to. But they can face very serious governance problems.

We talked for a bit longer and he ran through a litany of concerns that will sound entirely familiar to anyone who’s evergot involved with a small charity.

There was the chair of a neighbouring shed who would not delegate and wouldn’t admit he didn’t have the skills to do everything that needed to be done. There was a vulnerable elderly man who'd started coming, presenting unresolved safeguarding issues. There was a lack of induction, which meant that a lot of first-time visitors were being made to feel unwelcome by a couple of long-time users. There was an issue over plans to run activity sessions without proper training or insurance.

My friend, a middle-aged bloke, offered to go along and help. He didn’t mind spending a couple of hours getting some of these things sorted out.

The discussion went back and forth for a while, but in the end the answer was no, it wouldn’t be terribly welcome, thanks. The older fellow wanted to do woodwork, not run a charity. He didn’t want to get involved as far as he had, let alone have some outsider come in and help him set up a bunch of policies and procedures.

It’s hard to blame him, either. But it does show what a difficult challenge we have. Because it’s not the first small charity I’ve come across where this sort of stuff happened. Far from it. 

I’ve seen a Scout group where the leader was effectively both chair and chief executive, which created huge problems. Trustees referred to themselves as the fundraising committee. On another board, I realised that the ex-officio members hadn't realised they were trustees. We've fixed that now through induction.

At yet another charity, I encountered trustees who never turned up but refused to resign. No one would tackle the problem. At a fourth, a trustee was appointed but refused to be added to the register. The chief executive didn’t think it was important enough to mention, so no one realised for ages.

It's not obvious how to handle these situations. Trustees are volunteers, giving their time for free. They've often ended up on the board because they’re the only ones who'll do it. They often don’t want to have to handle the complex technical and interpersonal issues involved in running a charity, and they certainly don’t want the unlimited joint and several liability that comes with running an unincorporated trust.

I found myself stuck with two thoughts. The first was that this accidental trustee shouldn’t have to deal with all this stuff. He shouldn’t need to understand all this complexity.

But the second was that, as the law currently stands, he probably did need to. Somebody needed to, anyway. 

So here’s my question. How do we find ways to strengthen governance and knowledge at smaller organisations, when it’s so contrary to the instincts of the people involved?

Once again I’m driven back to a thought I’ve expressed in previous articles. Rather than asking people to change to fit in with trusteeship, do we need to change trusteeship to fit better with the people we're trying to serve?

Penny Wilson is chief executive of Getting on Board, a charity that focuses on trustee recruitment

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