Peter Curbishley: How to be a successful trustee

I suspect many trustees of small charities or not-for-profits have found the experience a little daunting. A major issue is knowing just what is going on in the charity of which they are a trustee. Being detached from the day to day work of the organisation means they become reliant on the information they receive from the management. This feeling of not quite knowing what’s going on, led me to write a book How to be a Successful Trustee to try and help trustees grasp this crucial issue.

In addition to being a trustee myself of several charities, I spent part of my career advising small firms which have many similarities to the not-for-profit sector. One important stand-out issue common to both – which I devote quite a lot of space to – is this issue of information. In all the plans and policies that charities have nowadays, it is rare for there to be an information plan, that is, formal methods setting out what information should be provided to the trustees to give them confidence that the organisation is being run well.

I propose a five part process, which I call the SCAPs model, to tackle this. You have to select what information you need. Then you should work out how, and how often that information is to be collected. It has to be analysed which involves turning data into information of value and relevance. Fourthly, it needs to be presented to the trustees in a way which enables them to understand what is happening. I stress also the importance of trends: how things are changing over time can be revealing. Finally, it has to be stored in a way it can be retrieved and is safe. Not only do you and your fellow trustees need this but you want to be reassured that the managers know what is happening as well.

There are nearly 350,000 charities of varying kinds in the UK not including organisations like academies. If we include other forms of not for profit organisations, then it is likely there are well over a million people who are trustees or carrying out similar roles on the boards of these organisations. Whereas there are many books advising owners of businesses, there are only a tiny handful of titles offering advice to trustees. Some of the problems I encountered were not covered in the existing advice, either printed or on-line.

Take for example the oft repeated advice that trustees should stick to policy and strategic issues and not seek to manage the organisation. That’s the job of the managers and chief executive they say. So what about governance and safeguarding which trustees are urged to pay great attention to? How can this be done without becoming closely involved in assessing risks and examining policies and procedures in some detail?

In developing or revising the charity’s strategy, trustees must look at existing performance and the ability of the team to change and develop and ensure its continuing relevance to the cause. This can only be achieved with some good grassroots knowledge of the organisation’s existing performance and management’s ability to carry it out. We might call this the trustee’s dilemma: to what extent do you as a trustee, delve into the detail?

I have tried to put together a book which discusses from my experience ‘the how’ and provides help and advice which I hope it will be of value to those who are already trustees and also to those thinking of becoming one.

Peter Curbishley, How to be a Successful Trustee, 2021, Riverside. £9.99. ISBN: 978-1-913012-63-2

Hard copy at £12.99 is at ISBN 978-1-913012-61-8.

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