Being a trustee

I started this blog to advertise a fundraising event for Age UK Barnet – the Secret Postcard Sale. At the time I was the Chair of the trustees and I still remain on the board. It is a cause which will always be close to my heart and a role which has given me, and taught me, much more than I have given the charity.

Without wanting to sound like some numpty contestant in a reality TV show, it has been a journey, so perhaps you will bear with me whilst I outline it for you.

It started in a small and serendipitous way. My sons came back from school after one of their first citizenship lessons and asked me, rather curiously, “What do we do for the community?” Out of the mouths of babes, as they say. So I told them that I occasionally helped their grandmother with fundraisers for the North London Hospice, not very often, and mostly when she needed muscle for lifting; I sometimes helped make the food or washed up at their rugby club, not very often, but sometimes; and I volunteered my time for evening sessions at Islington Law Centre, again not that frequently. They looked at me like they didn’t believe me, which they probably didn’t, as they were usually with their father when I did.

The question rather stayed with me. My mother had been a very successful volunteer in my childhood, chairing a local committee of the NSPCC. She, together with Rod Hull and a fundraiser at NSPCC HQ, dreamt up and organised the Children’s Royal Variety Show. She organised parties for children in care; ran pop-up charity shops and cakes sales; and took my brother and I to visit older people in local residential care homes. That sense of achievement, from being part of the place where you live, connected to more than just family, friends, and neighbours, was something I had clearly not shown my children.

So, when I saw an advert appealing for new trustees to join Age UK Barnet’s board, the question was there and I made the call. The advert said they were looking for someone who lived in the borough (tick), with a legal background (half a tick – I was working as a solicitor, but in the field of clinical negligence litigation, not as useful to a trustee board as someone with a background in contract or employment law). I knew nothing about running a charity or a business, but on the other hand I had worked as a doctor for 5 years, mainly in psychiatry, elderly mentally ill and old age medicine.

I met with the then Chair, Joan Penney, and Treasurer, Howard Fox, for a chat, trying not to feel overwhelmed by all the information they gave me about the charity, or terrified about the onerous duties of a trustee.  I went away with lots literature, including the Charity Commission’s Guidance

Joan and Howard had promised training, but I honestly did not know what I had to offer them. I attended a trustee meeting as an observer and it was, well, dull. Most of the meeting was taken up with the management accounts, which I struggled to follow. I don’t think I said a word and was the least experienced person there, so I was very surprised to get a call afterwards inviting me onto the board.

Except that it soon became clear to me that everyone joins a board with different skills and experience. My fellow trustees were generous with their knowledge and experience, so I learned about accounts and how to scrutinise them. I learned about business planning, investment (not a lot, but enough), negotiation, risk registers, and strategic thinking. I learned about the importance of “walking the floor” – seeing for myself what the charity I was putting my name to actually did as well as the importance of staying out of the day to day management, which was properly the role of the chief officer, but being available as a sounding board, just as my fellow trustees offered guidance to me. I learned that there was a time for decisive action and sometimes a time to watch and wait.

I learned a lot about board dynamics. From Joan, an extremely astute judge of people, I observed how deftly she ensured everyone had their say, weighing their views but also assessing the private reasons why one person might make a particular stand on an issue – the personality clashes, investment in a particular project or outside issues. I learned the importance of an individual phone call, coffee or lunch between meetings in building consensus. I learned about the importance of board dissension, because it is the people who disagree with a course of action who can show you the pitfalls and problems with a particular course of action. Board tension can be a creative force. But I also learned, through the gallantry and generosity of my fellow trustees, about the importance of board loyalty.

And I learned from the best. My Treasurer, Anthony Jackson, was formerly the financial director of DLR, three board members had founded their own companies, two of them later floating them as plcs. One had been managing director and chair of Rathbones Bank. The female board members had an extraordinary depth and breadth of experience in the voluntary sector. I found my role on the board, which I think was largely to provide energy, enthusiasm and ideas, lots of them foolish, but some of which could be honed into viable projects.

There is nothing quite like the sense of achievement you can get from building and supporting something for your local community, for being a voice for a cause you feel passionate about. Don’t get me wrong, in a period of cuts, when money is short, there are hard decisions you have to make, and they are all the harder because the stakes are high.

So, here is what I think.

Being a trustee is a huge responsibility. Don’t take it on unless you are prepared to turn up to the meetings (a board which is inquorate is paralysed) and make sure you have read the papers in advance so that you can make the best use of time in meetings.

Don’t be put off from joining a board because you think you aren’t expert enough – you can and will learn on the job. Strong boards are diverse: different ages, backgrounds, BMER representation, and skills make for a better board. It is true that accountants, lawyers, company directors, and HR professionals are always particularly welcomed, as are health and social care professionals if that is relevant to the charity, but a board made up of mainly retired professionals probably  will welcome someone with a working knowledge of social media or who can write a persuasive grant application. Asking questions because you don’t understand something is at the heart of good scrutiny.

It doesn’t matter why you become a trustee – because you care about a particular cause, because you want status in a community, or to strengthen your CV. There is no better way to learn how to run a company, than by actually running company, and most registered charities are also registered as companies. Once you are there then take the opportunity to learn but remember that, whatever your personal agenda or ambition, you have a duty to put your beneficiaries first. Keep that in mind and you cannot go too far wrong. The Nolan Principles for public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership apply as much to trustees as to politicians.

Your hardest job will be recruiting your successor.

If you want to be a trustee here are some links

If you are interested in becoming a trustee of Age UK Barnet please see here–campaigns/become-an-age-uk-barnet-trustee/


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