The role of trustees in a charity and the effective actions they can take

Charity Governance

The role of trustees in a charity is an important one which carries with it many responsibilities. But what exactly is their role and what actions can a trustee take to ensure they are effective in helping the charity to achieve its mission?

Recruitment specialists Saxton Bampfylde and governance experts Verita held a wide-ranging discussion with leading trustees and audit chairs on their role in a charity. The issues of confidence, complacency, and challenge were common themes.

Attendees referred to survey findings on governance confidence in the charity sector and then discussed a wide range of topics and themes based on relevant case studies. The results, which are outlined below, provide a useful foundation for understanding the important role of trustees in a charity and what can be done to improve effectiveness.

At the core of this subject is good governance which trustees have a duty to ensure is in place. Being tenacious is key to success in this regard.

In this article we will explore the role of trustees in a charity and the effective actions they can take to help the charity fulfil its purpose. But to fully understand the subject it is also useful to understand who can become a trustee, what the benefits are, and the charity’s recruitment process.

What is the role of trustees in a charity?

The role of a charity trustee involves the overall control and governance of a charity, ensuring that it operates in alignment with its mission and purpose. Trustees have the responsibility of directing the management and administration of the charity, making strategic decisions, and ensuring its accountability.

Key responsibilities and duties of a charity trustee include providing strategic leadership and direction by setting the charity’s strategic goals, vision, and mission, contributing to the development and implementation of strategic plans. With regard to governance, trustees have a legal responsibility to ensure the charity is well-governed and complies with its governing documents and legal obligations. This includes overseeing financial management, risk assessment, and compliance with regulatory requirements.

The Charities Act 1993 states “charity trustees” as meaning;

The persons having the general control and management of the administration of a charity.

Therefore trustees are legally responsible for assets, actions and decisions.

Trustees have a duty of loyalty and must act in the best interests of the charity. They should avoid conflicts of interest and make informed decisions impartially, with the aim of benefiting the charity and its beneficiaries. As well as this, they are responsible for ensuring the financial stability and sustainability of the charity. This includes monitoring financial performance, budgeting, and ensuring transparent and accountable financial practices.

Trustees identify and manage risks to the charity, ensuring that appropriate risk management policies and procedures are in place. They prioritise the safeguarding of the charity’s assets and reputation. As they represent the charity publicly, trustees act as ambassadors for its cause, advocating for the needs and interests of beneficiaries, promoting the charity’s work and generating support from stakeholders.

Who can become a trustee?

Charity trustees can be individuals who are over 18 years old and not disqualified from acting as a trustee. Disqualifying factors include an unspent conviction involving dishonesty or deception, being disqualified under the Charities act, or not meeting conditions set out in the charity’s governing document. In some cases a DBS check may be required.

While no specific qualifications are required to become a charity trustee, trustees are expected to possess the necessary skills and experience to oversee the charity’s activities. Prospective trustees should also understand the charity’s objectives and be committed to fulfilling the trustee role, which requires significant time and effort.

What are the benefits of becoming a trustee?

The role of a trustee includes significant responsibilities, and individuals should carefully consider their suitability and commitment before taking it on. However, becoming a charity trustee can provide individuals with valuable experience in governance, leadership, and management, and can offer opportunities for personal and professional growth while contributing to a worthy cause.

Trustees have the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the lives of others by contributing to the mission and goals of the charity. It also provides a way to develop and enhance a wide range of personal skills, such as leadership, communication, strategic thinking, decision-making, and teamwork.

Trustees also have the chance to network with like-minded individuals and experts in various fields who share a common interest in the charity’s cause. Further learning opportunities are gained through valuable insights and knowledge about governance, legal requirements, financial management, fundraising, and other aspects relevant to the charity sector. There is also the possibility of increasing visibility and professional reputation, especially within the charity sector.

Charities benefit from having a diverse range of trustees with different backgrounds and expertise, including individuals with experience as service users or volunteers, individuals from underrepresented social or professional groups, or individuals with specific skillsets.

How does a charity recruit a new trustee?

Recruiting a new trustee for a charity involves several steps to ensure the selection of someone suitable and eligible for the role. It is crucial to ensure that the recruitment process is fair, transparent, free from any bias, and that there are no conflicts of interest.

Here is an outline of the typical process:

  1. Identify the trustee skills and expertise needed that would add value to the charity’s board.
  2. Develop a trustee recruitment plan outlining the strategy, including timelines, responsibilities and approaches to reach a diverse range of potential candidates.
  3. Advertise the trustee position through various channels, such as the charity’s website and social media platforms, providing a clear and compelling description of the role, responsibilities, and the charity’s mission.
  4. Screen and shortlist candidates who meet the required skills and experience and conduct interviews to assess their suitability for the role.
  5. Check references for the preferred candidate(s) and contact referees to gather insights about their character, work ethic, and suitability for the role.
  6. Once a suitable candidate has been identified, extend an offer to the selected individual and ensure they are familiar with the role, responsibilities, and expectations.
  7. Provide induction and support to familiarise the new trustee with the charity’s operations, governance and strategic priorities.
  8. Offer ongoing support and training opportunities to help them settle into their role effectively.

Trustees in a charity – survey on governance confidence

The main survey findings on governance confidence in the charity sector which were discussed by Verita and Saxton Bampfylde are summarised below.

  • 100% clear on your responsibilities
  • 85% confident that meeting all relevant duties and regulation
  • 75% believe governance is very robust
  • Over 60% could absolutely publicly demonstrate charity is well run
  • 85% feel it’s very or fairly easy to keep up with relevant information
  • No concerns regarding safeguarding and complaints procedures
  • The biggest impact of recent scandals will be more scrutiny, regulation, and loss of donations
  • Biggest concerns: more regulation, reputation, and perception
  • Why? Because you believe in the cause…

How charity trustees can be effective

The subsequent discussion between Verita and Saxton Bampfylde focused around the role of trustees in a charity and the effective actions they can take to ensure the charity achieves its goals. This toolkit aims to help the board of trustees understand their role in a charity and meet best governance practice by setting out key benchmarks for good governance.

1) Charity Reputation Management

Drawing on the recent example of Oxfam and other case studies, there was a discussion on the most effective ways that good charity governance and robust trustee challenge can assist in reputation management.

Situations which can damage reputation should be dealt with using an open and transparent nature. With changing cultural norms and social media, whistleblowing and raising concerns is easier and more public than ever before. The risk of exposure is higher and organisations should have no doubt that any ‘dark secrets’ will be brought to the light.

Trustees were clear on their role that it is best to be upfront, apologise and acknowledge issues, and should help the organisation resist the temptation to deny allegations which have not been fully reviewed. There was recognition that whilst it is difficult to publicly and proactively acknowledge failure (for example, the removal of a senior figure for wrongdoing), the short-term pain of this brave approach will have longer-term gains in demonstrating the organisation and leadership act according to your values.

Much of the recent Oxfam charity scandal had its roots in historical events which would have preceded many trustee appointments on its current board. Trustees discussed what their role would be in a similar situation. Suggestions included questioning any gaps or anomalies in the charities history and making sure corporate memory does not leave with individuals, with all decisions properly recorded.

2) Weak signals

Based on previous Verita investigations, the role of trustees being sensitive to ‘weak signals’ of corporate failure was highlighted as being important in a charity.

These weak signals can identify important issues. What is the role of trustees in a charity in responding to these ‘blips on the radar’?

Transparent reporting, monitoring of complaints and whistle-blowing were all mentioned.

Important questions were raised about how best to translate these signals. For example:

  • do these signals reoccur;
  • can they be attributed to one area, service or team;
  • and are issues being treated as individual cases, or looked at over time?

The role of trustees in supporting a ‘speak up’ culture came through strongly.

Trustees were realistic in recognising they cannot know every detail about their charity. They were also concerned that request for more assurance added additional administrative burdens onto busy teams. However, strong governance and systems reduce risks to the charity. It is important that trustees are tenacious and courageous in asking uncomfortable questions of the executives.

3) Relationships

Drawing on recent examples and case studies, the relationship between the chair and chief executive was examined. This relationship is vitally important to a well-run organisation. and needs to be one of comradeship, but not friendship. How can trustees help make sure the right balance of challenge and support is struck?

In the discussion, trustees agreed they should set the chief executive objectives and review every six months. Chairs need to be rigorous in holding the chief executive to account, whilst recognising any distracting external and internal issues that may have arisen during that period.

Trustees need to be clear when this relationship is not working when the challenge is lacking and or it feels ‘too cosy’. It may need discussions without the chair present to articulate trustee concerns and how they want it addressed.

4) Volunteers

Volunteers provide a significant amount of time, dedication, and support to charities. In many cases, volunteers are necessary for a charity to function.

Trustees said volunteers offer support but in turn, need to be supported themselves. Because they are committed and offer support for free, there is sometimes a lack of scrutiny and management of their activities. Operating on the ‘shop floor’, volunteers need to be able to raise any governance or safeguarding concerns rapidly through the organisation. Likewise, as Verita brought to life with a relevant case study, boards must have oversight of any potential concerns about the actions of volunteers.

Based on experience, Verita recommended that a trustee should be delegated board-responsibility for volunteers, including policies around recruitment, training, and purpose of their role. Management of volunteers was essential, as were volunteers being clear on all relevant policies, escalation, and whistleblowing. Staff and volunteer surveys were also considered useful for monitoring positives and negatives and highlighting any concerns early.

Strong management of volunteers means they feel better valued, time is better used and they are making a clear difference.

It also felt important to explain to service users the role and remit of volunteers, as they are often in direct contact with vulnerable individuals.


In summary, Verita’s experience shows that in order to be effective trustees must…

  • Use complaints as an asset
  • Act on weak signals
  • Be prepared to ask the difficult questions
  • Be inquisitive
  • Sunlight is the best disinfectant

Strong governance protects both charities and volunteers.


If you would like to learn more about the role of trustees in a charity then please book a free consultation or contact Ed Marsden on 020 7494 5670 or [email protected].


This article was written in June 2018 and was updated in August 2023 with additional content.


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