Sarah Cox: Understanding the role of a trustee

If you are a newly established charity just getting started on your mission, you may find the role of trustee a new concept and a potentially ambiguous role, however it’s imperative that you understand just what is expected of them and the duties a trustee must uphold if you wish to make the impact within your charity that we know you’re capable of.

Many new and unincorporated charities find themselves confused about what the exact role of a trustee is, who it is, and the responsibilities of those in the position of trustee. This article will share that information to help you understand just what is expected of a person in this role.

Defining a trustee

Trustees can be called a number of different things from charity to charity, they may be called the board, the management committee, governors, and directors to name a few. For smaller charities, particularly those who may be unincorporated, someone may act as a trustee without knowing it, which is where issues can arise.

According to the Government website, “Charity trustees are the people who share ultimate responsibility for governing a charity and directing how it is managed and run.”

Trustees play an integral role in the running of a charity. Without their dedication and guidance, a charity will struggle to manage their finances and direction and ultimately to continue to help those who need their support and services.

Act for the ultimate benefit of the public and charity

Trustees and co-trustees must ensure that the charity has a set purpose, and that it works solely towards it. For example your charity may provide assistance for isolated pensioners who need assistance with day to day tasks; if the charity then spent their money on a cause that didn’t help this objective, a trustee may be liable to personally reimburse the funds. It’s also important to note that a trustee must also not personally benefit from the charity unless properly authorised and in the charity’s interests.

All spending made by a charity needs to be justifiable to support its own cause, no matter how deserving another may be. The trustee should always keep this in mind and keep the charity focused on its target.

They must also consider both the long and short term ramifications of decisions made by trustees for the charity and the benefits this will have towards those who need your assistance and services. Trustees should be the captain of the route a charity sails.

Be responsible

A trustee should have strong morals, they should always act honestly and responsibly with all affairs relating to the charity. This includes matters relating to resources, security, and the people who work or volunteer for your cause. Measures should be taken to minimise the risk of fraud, abuse, any maltreatment of personnel, or illegal activity.

Part of their responsibility is to use their skills and experience in decision making, and making sure they ask for advice when needed. A trustee should know when to rely on their own knowledge and expertise and when it’s time to ask a specialist.

We also highly recommend considering taking out a trustee indemnity policy to help protect the individual should an issue arise where they need assistance, as this can be a lot of responsibility to uphold without additional protection should a mistake be made on their watch.

Comply with rules and regulations

A trustee is expected to comply with any laws that may be relevant to their charity and practices. This is the responsibility of the individual(s) to find out what these are and to seek guidance where needed.

Not only must a trustee respect the law, but they must also act in accordance with the charity’s governing document which details the charity’s purpose, processes in different circumstances, and ultimately, how to shut the charity down.

The trustee should be able to clearly demonstrate how they are complying with the law and the measures they have put in place to protect the charity and the people involved.

We hope this article has helped you understand the expectations and responsibilities for someone in the role of a trustee in a charity. It can seem like a lot of responsibility on one or a small number of individuals, but they are imperative for the success of your organisation. As long as they are clear on what is expected on them, your charity can continue to help those in need for years to come.

Sarah Cox is the Managing Director of charity and faith insurance specialist, Ansvar, the sponsors of this piece.

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