CHARITY TRUSTEES: OPERATING OUTSIDE THEIR COMFORT ZONE?

Marlowe Russell

Trustee of the South London Botanical Institute, Marlowe Russell, discusses the collapse of Kids Company and the challenges Charities face

The sudden closure of the high-profile charity, Kids’ Company, has brought charity trustees into the media spotlight.  As more community-based and volunteer-reliant charities expand their remit, trustees everywhere face greater responsibilities and anxieties.

Operating in an environment that is becoming ever more regulatory and professionally demanding, trustees are ‘jointly and severally’ responsible in law for the financial probity and legal compliances of their charity.  Trustees are also accountable to the Charity Commission and to funders and donors.  These levels of responsibility and external scrutiny are often akin to those of a commercial business.
As a trustee of a long-standing, successful, relatively, small educational charity that has grown significantly in the past few years, one is used being pulled in different directions.  After a century of independently pootling along on our modest endowment investments and a legacy or two, our charity is able to employ some part-time staff, undertake modest refurbishment of our building and offer an expanded range of activities.  At the same time, grant-aid has increased pressure on trustees in terms of financial management, employer responsibilities and staff supervision.  Understandably and properly, funders require detailed, accurate and transparent reporting and accountability, and may impose additional conditions.  Managing change while retaining core values is challenging.  The amount of extra work has caused us to sometimes question grant-aid as a viable source of income for the charity.

Although large or high-profile charities may attract professional trustees or be able to afford sufficient staff to administer the organisation, 75% of UK charities are not in this bracket.  Many trustees of the 180,000 registered charities across the country are of modest means, perhaps working or retired, and are giving up their time because they value the organisation they are involved with.  They are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and committed to their causes.  Hands-on in terms of delivery and administration, they may be (or have been) specialists or professionals in their own field – in our case, plants and the environment – but are amateurs in terms of running a business.  Recruiting skilled people to work for free takes even more time and effort than recruiting a salaried post.  It’s not uncommon within the sector for trustees to resign because of the anxiety about their personal liability in the event of the organisation failing.

As the regulatory environment becomes ever more professionalised, a real tension arises between the necessity for professional administration to ensure transparency and accountability and the reasons that people become involved in charities in the first place.  While a charity remains fairly small or has a limited remit, simple systems suffice.  As they begin to grow or their remit broadens to take on services formerly within the public sector or as a substitute for services lost to austerity measures, trustees are often outside not only their comfort zones, but that of their knowledge and experience.  Training and support for these developing are not necessarily available.  Should amateurs be asked to do much outside their proficiency?

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