On why I’m a trustee (and why you should be too)

Every once in a while, when I mention that I’m a trustee, someone will say to me “Oh I’ve always wanted to do that. I think it’s something I’ll do later in my career, when I’ve got the experience.” I’m here to tell you to do it now – because you’ve got what you need, and you have no idea how much more you’ll get out of it.

I’ve been a trustee sporadically since I was 18, first for Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE), then for Croft House Settlement, a community centre in Sheffield (old blog here), and now for the Family Planning Association (FPA). Each role has been completely different, and has taught me something new about myself, my skills and how to run a charity. Each one had given me the chance to be a part of something I am passionate about. So here’s what I’ve learnt.

I really like spreadsheets

Full disclosure: I got a D in maths (sorry again, Mr Rome). I didn’t really expect to like the numbers side of being a trustee. At CRAE I got my first sight of charity accounts, and got the support from staff to understand them. I quickly learnt that I enjoy the kind of attention to detail and process involved in accounts scrutiny (read: am a massive nerd).

I also learnt that I don’t have to be an actual accountant. The boards I’ve been on have had other lovely trustees who are financial experts, and staff who take the time to explain the trickier technical detail to me in a way I can understand – and could explain to others if I were asked. I need to be confident that we have clear and robust accounts, we’re working to build our income base and we’re spending our money wisely. To do that I need to take time to read, be confident to ask questions and be mindful of our mission. I don’t need to be an accountancy whizz. Being a trustee is a team game; you’ll have skills and knowledge that a board needs, whether it’s fundraising and finance, strategy and campaigning or a fresh perspective, passion and lived experience. Your skills will be balanced by all those other people’s, and you’ll help each other to pick up more along the way.

I’m passionate about the causes I support – and I can show that off

There is a lot of focus on compliance, fraud, finance and other important technical things in the press about trustees, and rightly so. But I think that can sometimes mask the role a trustee can have in promoting and celebrating the work of their charity. This is such important work, for me, and it’s also I think the stuff that attracts people to this kind of role, so we shouldn’t downplay it.  It seems kind of obvious to say I’m passionate about the things I support, but I think it’s an important first step when you’re looking for opportunities – the right one will be one you really truly care about, and that will make you a better trustee.

I’ve learnt over the years that I can support these charities well just through social media, whether that means helping a community space with its own online presence, or just being vocal about how great FPA is and how important its campaigns are. Recently I’ve also been lucky enough to attend lots of FPA events; I’m so grateful for the team for letting me come along because it gives me an opportunity to see their great work first hand, and to be a part of the movement as well. If you’re passionate about a cause and want to support a great charity in that field, then being a trustee is a great role. It means making sure the charity is in a healthy state, but it also means getting involved, throwing yourself into opportunities and representing where you can.

I’m constantly learning

There’s a great set of top tips here from existing trustees, a lot of which focus on asking questions. This can be really hard when you’re new and you think you don’t know anything, but trust me, you do, and you’ll know a lot more if you ask. Trustees and staff should take responsibility for making sure people new to the role have the right support and information to understand what’s going on, and the tools to contribute fully to the role.

One of Leon Ward’s tips is that it can take a year to really get to know a board, and I think this is absolutely right. My time at Croft House was cut short because I had to leave Sheffield, which was a shame, because after a year of hard strategy work I felt like we were really at the start of something great – but again, my fab fellow trustees were there to carry that all forward, with their own expertise and passion. That role taught me about thinking strategically and looking creatively for opportunities. My previous role at CRAE, alongside the spreadsheet thing, taught me about the importance of involving beneficiaries and supporting them appropriately. In my current role I’m building on my skills and interests and developing new ones too. This, incidentally, also makes me a better charity worker, because it helps me to think about the bigger picture, strategic relationships and competing priorities.

You don’t have to know everything there is to know about governance and strategic leadership, and you don’t have to have worked in the sector (or anywhere) for 30 years to qualify you as a trustee, because being a trustee is so much more than that. It’s an opportunity to be part of a movement, to identify and develop your skills and experience and to bring your own creativity, passion or strategic vision to the table. So, if you’ve ever thought “maybe I could” – do it!

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New Year’s Resolution no. 2: making a mark as a trustee

One of the best things I’ve done this year is become a trustee of a charity. I’ve been a trustee before, many years ago for Children’s Rights Alliance for England, which was a great experience and helped me learn about what’s involved in running an organisation. But that was a very different organisation and a very different situation. My current trustee role is offering challenges and opportunities that I couldn’t get anywhere else. The next step for me is to do something amazing with that.

I’m a trustee of Croft House Settlement, a community venue with a long history and a small turnover. I was attracted to it first because I’m a voluntary action history nerd; the settlement movement in the late 19th and early 20th century brought services into poor communities to tackle poverty and offer education and support to those who would otherwise struggle to get it. Toynbee Hall is one of the most famous and is still running fantastic services today. The movement is rooted in Christian philanthropy, and Croft House was established in 1902 by the Rev. William Blackshaw in an area of poor housing and poverty in Sheffield. After a period of decline, it was resurrected in the late 1980s by a marching band looking for a new home, and has been home to it and a range of other dance, music and theatre groups ever since.

The existing trustee board was looking for a refresh and reached out through Do-It for anyone interested. It got the kind of shock that it wanted; a group of new trustees that brought a different age and gender demographic to the group, that had new ideas and different perspectives to contribute and that could (and fully intend to) help to develop and improve Croft House Settlement, whilst respecting its history and its existing dedicated user group. Already we’ve set out plans for developing a full strategy based on three overarching areas; the building, the branding and the community. These will link together to make crucial improvements to the physical space, some parts of which are in desperate need of refurbishment, to listen to and make the most of service users, creating and embedding a real community, and getting the message out to new organisations and customers, boosting business and helping financial sustainability.

My interest is in the community. In taking the time to examine what I like and what I’m good at during my year as a Charityworks Graduate Trainee, I realised that what I really enjoy is building links between different people and different organisations, and creating something – an idea, a service, a space – that they can really buy into. Listening to existing users is key to this, for me; the service users of Croft House Settlement will be able to explain what they like (and what they dislike) about the place than I ever can, because they use it, week in, week out. It’s as simple as that. They have to be a key part in making it better, and in bringing more people in. Using those existing networks, I hope, will be a great way of bringing in new communities and customers.

So, the New Year’s Resolution beneath all of this involves developing some new skills for myself as well as being a part of developing a whole organisation. I want the building to get the investment it deserves. I want it to have a solid strategy for organisational development in place. And I want it to embody a sense of community; be guided by it, and make the most of it as an asset. My resolution is to be a part of making all of this happen.