Becoming a Hardie Park Trustee

What is a trustee and how could you be a great one?

A trustee is part of the team that governs a charitable organisation, like ours. The latest edition of the Good Trustee Guide; the bible for voluntary sector governance, outlines twelve essential board responsibilities which include:

  • Set and maintain vision, mission and values
  • Develop strategy
  • Ensure accountability
  • Ensure compliance with the law

An important issue for the board is that our trustees, on average, have about twenty hours of governance time over the course of the year based on monthly board meeting and the occasional ad-hoc sub-groups. As a charity we find ourself facing specific financial challenges that require our board to take difficult decisions in a considered, informed but timely manner. This requires a majority of people on the board, whatever their background, who can understand and process complex information, assess risks in relation to doing something but also assess the risk of doing nothing. We need people on the board who understand some of the current developments going on in the sector and issues surrounding restructure for example.

Given this, the average person considering trusteeship might justifiably be anxious and feel intimidated by taking on these responsibilities. In fact, most people, however professionally skilled, will be put off.

However, we already have a fantastic group of Trustees with experience so it is a perfect opportunity to build your own confidence and learn whilst still fulfilling a vital role. For me, as someone who is a chief executive, but has also been a trustee, these five things are the most important for trustees in their role:

  • Be interested and curious about the charity’s work and its new developments. Read the papers beforehand so that you can make meaningful and informed contributions at the meetings.
  • Make sure that the largest part of your meeting is about strategy, not operations. That’s why you have a chief executive/manager/staff. Your staff can give you an operational report, but assume everyone’s read it and it’s for information only. Your CEO’s life is in the operational space, where they get to talk about ideas and strategy is with you.
  • Be focused on your mission – this sounds vague but it means very specific things – are you expanding into areas that take resources away from your objectives? What are the risks? What are the benefits? Are you collaborating effectively to get the best possible service for your service users?
  • Supporting your CEO to move forward –in situations where the organisation faces significant challenges like loss of funding, while it’s good to have a collective moan about it, the role of a good trustee board is to move the conversation on and think about what next? It’s not to allow you all to stay in a negative place. That’s not helpful. As trustees, the most useful thing you can do when things go wrong is sympathise, sure, but actually, work collectively to mitigate and move forward.
  • Create the conditions that allow trust between you and the CEO – you’re a team, you should be working together on running the charity. In most circumstances, the CEO knows much more than you about the charity, and has sound reasons for recommending the things they do. Your job as trustees is to test their assumptions, challenge their ideas, but in a helpful way.

I’ve been a charity trustee for different charities over the course of my career, and found it the most useful and rewarding way to contribute my skills as a volunteer. Watching the charity you manage go through and navigate the challenges of the world we live in, while holding the interests of beneficiaries close to your heart, is the real definition of committed community activation and engagement. We should embrace the opportunity that trusteeship offers to make a real and substantial difference to our communities.

Rob Groves. CEO.