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Put your trust in trustees

With charity budgets tighter than ever it is crucial that trustees offer as much support as possible to the executive and that means having a diverse board of talented individuals as possible
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Clare Yeowart
Clare Yeowart guides charity trustees in how to show strong leadership in her report released this week

Trustees are as crucial to charities' success as directors are to businesses – so why don't we hear more about them?

The 'Big Society' has had its official launch and there's been no shortage of inspiring stories of social action. But I've been disappointed that in the midst of all this, there has been no mention of what is, to my mind, one of the most valuable forms of volunteering – being a charity trustee.

To be honest, this omission is hardly surprising. After all, trusteeship does suffer from a bit of an image problem – people tend to think of it as an activity for retired, middle-aged men and women.

But there are 800,000 charity trustees in the UK, the vast majority of whom give their time and skills to charities for free. The role they play is vital and deserves recognition. As Ken Olisa, chair of the homelessness charity Thames Reach, put it recently, trustees are as central to a charity's success as a director is to a business.

Events in the City in recent times have highlighted what happens when directors don't do their job properly. So, as we move into an era of unprecedented spending cuts, it's more crucial than ever that charity trustees are on the case, supporting stressed executive teams and helping them make difficult decisions about resources and priorities.

Difficult times ahead

In our new paper, Trusteeship 2010, New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) emphasises that charity trustees need to show strong leadership to help their organisations through the difficult times ahead. We suggest that, for boards to be effective in supporting their charities, they need to invest in things such as recruitment (to attract the right mix of trustees), induction and training (to ensure those trustees understand their roles and how best to fulfil them), and regular board reviews (so that individual trustees and the board as a whole identify their strengths and weaknesses and work out how to improve).

Given that charity budgets are likely to be tighter than ever, private funders can make a big difference by funding this sort of support for boards.

With budget cuts and redundancies on the agenda, becoming a trustee may not exactly seem enticing. But being a trustee can bring great benefits to individuals, as well as helping charities and the communities in which they work. As Carol Lake, from the investment bank JP Morgan told us, being a trustee has developed her skills and made her 'more rounded, informed and engaged', with a broader perspective and a better appreciation of leadership skills.

People in busy jobs like Carol's often feel they lack the time to volunteer, hence the lack of diversity and shortage of certain skills on charity boards.

In Trusteeship 2010 we call on the government and employers to do their bit to build the 'Big Society' by removing barriers to volunteering.

Incentives for being a trustee

Giving employees an allowance of paid time off per year for volunteering activities such as attending board meetings is a good start. But we would like to see employers go further – providing incentives for being a trustee by building it into personal development plans and appraisal systems, and offering training and support to help employees find suitable roles and be good trustees.

Happier, more engaged employees, helping to build a stronger and more sustainable charity sector? That sounds like a real answer to achieving the Big Society.

Clare Yeowart is a senior analyst at New Philanthropy Capital and the author of Trusteeship 2010, New Philanthropy Capital's new briefing for charity trustees

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