Governance, Trustees

Being an effective trustee: five top tips

Leesa Harwood provides five top tips on how to become an effective trustee.

Being a trustee of a charity presents a special and significant opportunity to make a difference. The Charity Commission produces many guidelines on how to be a compliant and responsible trustee, from CC3 (The Essential Trustee: what you need to know, what you need to do) to the 6 Fundraising Principles in the CC20 guidelines.

Whilst these guidelines are essential reading for all trustees, a personal check list is critical for trustees who are serious about adding value and contributing at the highest level of the organisation.

What type of Trustee do you want to be?

The best trustees are supportive challengers. They interrogate in a supportive but objective way, offering help without disenfranchising the executives and senior managers. They keep themselves proactively informed by reading reports and staying abreast of developments in relevant fields. They take their responsibilities and credibility seriously and work hard to build trust with fellow board members and staff.

Here are some simple steps that can help you to become a more effective trustee:

  1. Build relationships between meetings – it’s tempting to see your role in the limited context of the board meeting, but being a trustee is much more than that. Ask the senior managers if and how you could add value, by imparting knowledge, making introductions or thanking staff, volunteers or donors.
  2. Stay informed – don’t just read your Board papers. Proactively strive to better understand the charity sector and stay up to date on developments affecting the specific cause of your charity. If you’re not sure where to look, ask the senior managers for guidance.
  3. Don’t meddle – understand the difference between executive and non-executive responsibility and don’t cross the line. By getting too involved in the operational or tactical detail you will disenfranchise the executive and senior managers.
  4. Be objective – as you get to know your fellow trustees and senior managers you might start to normalise the status quo, accepting existing ways of thinking and working. It is important to maintain objectivity throughout your tenure so that you can identify issues and areas of concern or celebration that people more embedded in the organisation might miss.
  5. Be constructive – as a trustee it is your responsibility to challenge thinking and assumptions. But do so in a constructive way. Think about how your approach and style and the impact you have on the executive and senior managers at board meetings. Do you criticise and deflate, or coach and support? Your job is to get the very best out of people, so think carefully about the environment you create.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. Ask the chair, fellow trustees, the CEO and senior managers how you are doing against these criteria and how you can improve. Trustees should not be immune from performance management and evaluation. It’s the ultimate way to lead by example, hold yourself accountable and make the most of your role as a trustee.