Would you be a trustee these days?

The payment and liability of trustees have attracted controversy in recent weeks. Nathalie Thomas reports.

Charity trustees have good reason to feel disgruntled at the moment, having found themselves in the firing line on more than one occasion recently.

The sensitive debate over paid trusteeship was reignited last month when it emerged that John Greenway, Conservative MP for Ryedale, is paid £20,000 for chairing the Responsibility in Gambling Trust.

"It goes completely against the nature of voluntary activity," declared Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change, who said Greenway should give the money back.

A month before that, it was revealed that Acevo chief executive Stephen Bubb would receive £10,000 a year to chair the Adventure Capital Fund, the charity that provides investment for community organisations. This provoked arguments between those who believe remunerating trustees creates more diverse and skilled boards and those who think it undermines the ethos of charity trusteeship.

As if this didn't create enough contention, it has been argued that potential trustees are being frightened off joining boards by insurance companies exaggerating their personal liability (Third Sector, 28 March).

Neil Gadsby, chair of Katharine House Hospice in Oxfordshire, said his charity was struggling to recruit trustees because potential candidates were afraid of what would happen to them if something went wrong.

A few weeks earlier, Dame Suzi Leather, chair of the Charity Commission, issued a severe reminder about the responsibilities of trustees of charities delivering public services. Trustees, she warned, needed to ensure their organisations maintained independence from government and delivered only those services that lay within their charitable objects.

"It's trustees who face the consequences if mission drift becomes a breach of trust," she cautioned (Third Sector, 21 February).

The previous week, Acevo had issued trustees with a similarly stern telling off when it launched an inquiry into standards, accusing the sector of "shameful apathy" when it came to governance (Third Sector, 14 February).

Have all these warnings and controversies taken their toll on trustees? Governance expert and trustee Tesse Akpeki thinks so. "People are confused, anxious and angry," she says.

Akpeki thinks that instead of chastising trustees for poor standards, more should be done to recognise and encourage the good work performed by boards across the country. "Far from trustees being apathetic, there's a new wave of stuff going on," she says. "People are crying out for knowledge, skills and information. Trustees are doing a fantastic job."

When it comes to minimising personal risk, Akpeki advises trustees to remain alert to the latest regulatory and legal requirements, but not to be alarmed. "If you are equipped and you keep equipping yourself, you will hardly ever get into trouble," she says.

Linda Laurance, founder of governance consultancy Linda Laurance & Associates, agrees. "It's like the public perspective of crime," she says. "There's a gap between fear and reality."

Laurance believes the key to minimising trustee liability lies in inducting and training trustees regularly and thoroughly. "An organisation that is properly run is unlikely to put its trustees at risk of liability," she says. "If you are doing the job properly, there won't be any risk."

But what about organisations such as Katharine House Hospice, which are having problems convincing potential trustees of the realities of everyday trustee life? The trick is to advertise all the positive aspects of trusteeship, says Laurance.

"To start with, you emphasise the importance of the contribution that trustees make to an organisation and the personal satisfaction that can be gained," she says.

"Then you say: 'By the way, there needs to be commitment here. You will be required to attend meetings, and this is the minimal amount of time. And there are legal responsibilities.'"

According to Jolanta Lasota, head of the Governance Hub, the sector could benefit from a radical overhaul of the way charities recruit trustees.

She thinks any problems could be ironed out by a totally different approach. "We need to present trusteeship to the public in a different way," she says. The Governance Hub is looking into creating one central resource where organisations can advertise their vacancies and where members of the public can find out everything they need to know about trusteeship - something similar to the School Governors' One-Stop Shop.

Nevertheless, the overriding message from Akpeki, Laurance and Lasota is a simple one: celebrate and support trustees for the work they do, which most of the time is for free.


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