How to find the right trustee role

Post it notes wall in a seminar text reads how do I find the right trustee role
Eleanor Urben
TrusteeWorks Manager at Reach Volunteering

Eleanor shares some pointers on choosing the right role for you and navigating the application process.

Taking on a charity trusteeship is a rewarding and beneficial way to volunteer your time. You will have the chance to support and shape the work and strategic direction of an organisation, and you can make a significant difference to a cause that matters to you. Becoming a trustee is a great way to get involved in a community or to find out more about the not-for-profit sector.

Being a trustee can also offer the opportunity for professional development. It can let you gain experience of strategy and leadership, and boost your CV. It will give you practical experience of being a non-executive director and developing skills such as influencing, negotiating, and managing risk. If you already have significant experience in these areas, it can be stimulating to use it in a different and potentially challenging context. Trustees often say that being a board member has been one the richest sources of learning in their professional lives.

Your fellow board members will come from different professions and sectors, and it can be interesting and inspiring to work together with people from very different backgrounds. It can also be affirming to see how valued your own expertise is by people from different professions. Every board needs to develop a good understanding of their charity’s finances, so financial expertise is essential. Some accountants eschew Treasurer positions, concerned that it will be too similar to their day job. However, this is not the case as all trustees share collective responsibility for the charity and Treasurers have the same role as other trustees in strategic decision making. However, a good Treasurer plays a key part in ensuring that all trustees understand their financial position. 

Choosing the right trustee role for you

As you are giving your time on a voluntary basis it is crucial that you take on a trustee role for a charity whose cause motivates you. A standard term for a trustee position is three years, so before applying for a role you will need to consider if you will remain engaged and committed to the organisation. Often people take on a trustee role with a charity whose cause they have a personal connection with, or interest in, but do not feel that you need to start with a burning passion for a specific cause: people often find that their interest grows as they learn more about an issue or an organisation’s work.

Applying for a role

Organisations vary in how they recruit trustees. However, a typical recruitment process involves: 

  • Application by CV / cover letter / application form
  • Opportunity for informal chat / open day
  • Interviews (informal or formal)
  • Appointment (immediate or after observation). 

If you are interested in a particular organisation you can contact them directly to express your interest, find out if there are any trustee positions available and if so, what you need to do to apply.

If you would prefer to explore a range of different trustee opportunities you can register with sites such as Reach Volunteering where you will find hundreds of different roles advertised by charities across the UK. Organisations will also advertise on sites such as Charity Job, The Guardian, via local volunteer centres and their own website.

The interview

Once you have applied for a trustee role you will be invited to an interview, which can either be informal or formal based on how the charity recruit trustees.

You may also be offered the opportunity to have an informal chat with the CEO, Chair and / or other trustees. Some charities suggest that you attend a trustee meeting so that you can see the board in action. Whichever format the process takes, it should be a two way dialogue and provide as much opportunity for you to get to know the charity as it does for the charity to get to know you. Below are some areas that you should explore before formally accepting a trustee position. 

Things to explore before becoming a trustee 

  1. Find out about the vision, mission and values of the organisation. As you will be giving your time on a voluntary basis it is essential that these resonate with you.

  2. Ask about the make up of the board. These are the colleagues with whom you will be collectively responsible for the charity so it needs to be a team you want to join. How many board members are there and how long have they been in post? Ask why vacancy has arisen. What is the demographic mix? How well do the trustees work together, and what is their relationship with the Chair and the CEO? Finding out about this will provide insight into the board you will be joining and if it is the type of board you would like to join.
  3. Ask about the financial position of the charity and what its resources are. Every charity files their accounts and Trustees reports  with the Charity Commission (England and Wales) or OSCR (Scotland). These documents provide a rich source of insight into the charity. Also, ask what the charity’s appetite for risk is, and consider if it matches yours?
  4. Check the legal structure. This determines the level of personal liability that trustees assume. If the charity is also a company limited by guarantee, or a COI, then trustees have limited liability. Request to see the governing document as it provides clarity on the expectations of the trustee role.
  5. Clarify the time commitment of the role and be realistic about if you can commit to it. It is important to establish the expectation the organisation has for its trustees. For example, do the current trustees take on a more hands on approach within the organisation or are they expected to only attend the scheduled board meetings? Where and when are board meetings held? Are there opportunities to get more involved, for example through subcommittees? A subcommittee is a great way to support more aspects of the charity’s operations and could give you insight into finance, audit, risk, nominations, fundraising or other areas.
  6. Ask about the organisation’s strategic plan and board priorities for the next few years. This will inform the kind of input and time commitment the role will require. For example, is the organisation planning on going through a significant change which will require you to commit more time to the role? What skills, experience, capabilities and value can you bring to the board to support the achievement of those goals?  Joining a charity at a time of change can be rewarding as you can make a significant contribution.
  7. Find out if there is an induction process in place and what it involves. Poor induction is one of the most cited reasons for individuals stepping down prematurely so it is important to see if the charity has a process in place. Having time to learn about the organisation and accessing key information will help you become an effective member of the board more quickly. Don’t be afraid to ask if there is any training available:  it can help you become a more effective board member and support your professional development.

The induction process

During the induction process the organisation should provide you with key documents such as the governing document, the latest annual report and the organisational strategy. Have a look at the Charity Commission’s useful Charity trustee welcome pack.

An organisation may offer you a ‘buddy’, who is an existing board member who can mentor you through the first few months. This can be particularly useful if you have not been a trustee before or are a young trustee, and indeed if you are new to the voluntary sector.

Take your time

Becoming a trustee can be a wonderful opportunity for you to use your skills for social good. It is important to take your time to find the right role for you, which fits with your interests, skills and can work around your other commitments. If a charity’s trustee recruitment process does not provide you with enough opportunity to explore mutual fit, do not be afraid to ask more questions.

This article first appeared in Financial Accountant, the magazine of members of the Institute of Financial Accountants.

It is estimated that almost half of all charities are looking for trustees at any one time, so there is certainly the ideal role for you out there.


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