Stephen Lee: The most comprehensive picture of trusteeship in a generation

The report on trusteeship by the Charity Commission and Cabinet Office shows that charity trustees need further support, says one of the lead researchers

Stephen Lee
Stephen Lee

Charity trustees are under scrutiny as never before. Public failings associated with the demise of Kids Company, concerns regarding the governance of fundraising in larger charities and enhanced critical media attention have each contributed to a reported decline in trust and confidence in charities among the general public in the past two years.

In the light of this, Taken on Trust: Awareness and Effectiveness of Charity Trustees in England and Wales seeks to establish greater understanding of the characteristics of contemporary trustees in England and Wales and their awareness (or otherwise) of their responsibilities and duties. Tracey Crouch, the Minister for Civil Society, says in her foreword to the report that the research findings represent "the most comprehensive picture of trusteeship in a generation".

Researchers analysed the complete data set of the register of trustee roles maintained by the Charity Commission (about 850,000 individual roles), from which a random stratified sample of trustees (19,064) was extracted to provide more detailed analysis through a national survey carried out in January 2017.

According to the survey, just under a quarter of trustees sit on more than one charity board, with an average of 1.35 boards per trustee. This indicates that the number of active charity trustees is about 700,000 – significantly fewer than the commonly reported figure of about 850,000.

Our results identify that in about 80 per cent of charities nationally, trustees play both a governance role and an executive role – they have no staff or other volunteers from whom they can seek support. They operate in very small charities in terms of both size and the resources they acquire and distribute on an annual basis.

Trustees are extremely positive about the roles they perform, their importance to society and the personal reward and satisfaction they gain from being charity trustees. We estimate the annual value of the time that trustees spend on their duties at £3.5bn.

Counterbalancing these positive findings, the research demonstrates that trustees are drawn from a very narrow cross-section of the communities they serve. Men outnumber women trustees two to one, a finding also reflected in the roles of chair and treasurer. The vast majority are white British, older and above average in terms of income and education. These findings demonstrate that there is a clear need to promote greater diversity within charity trustee boards.

The findings suggest that charity trustees are overly reliant upon fellow trustees for both advice and support, and the recruitment of new trustees. Failure to address this issue leads to the danger that charity trustee boards will become myopic in their views and in their decision-making.

Trustees are generally confident about their own perception of the legal duties and responsibilities they face. They are, however, less confident when specific responsibilities are identified and tested. Our findings suggest there might therefore be something of a gap between a trustee’s perception of their legal duties and their actual knowledge.

Charity trustees report that they lack relevant legal, digital, fundraising, marketing and campaigning skills at board level. They recognise the threat from fraud and external cyber attack, but remain concerned about their own skill proficiencies in this respect.

It is clear from these findings that charity trustees need further support to actively embrace the introduction of different people, new ideas, skills and experience to trustee boards (especially digital skills), and to target the recruitment of trustees from more diverse sections of society.

This might be achieved through implementation of a national campaign, owned by the sector itself and supported and promoted by government and the Charity Commission. As demonstrated by the findings contained in this research, such a campaign should promote the worth of charity trusteeship and the hugely positive benefits it delivers to clients and beneficiaries, to society at large and to those who act as trustees themselves.

Stephen Lee is professor of voluntary sector management and lead researcher at Cass Business School

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