Friday, September 15, 2006

The Trustee's Role

"Inside the Voluntary Sector"
with the Community Care magazine
25-31 August 1994

The Trustee's role

I am a trustee of a mental health charity and, with my fellow trustees, by law I am ultimately and totally responsible for every aspect of a charity which employs about 400 staff and has a turnover of more than £9M. As trustees, we re financially liable to the maximum of our personal assets.

So, in theory, we could lose everything, including our homes.In practice, we take no responsibility.

However disastrous the consequences of a decision, the trustees can claim that it was made in good faith and that 'proper advice' was taken - for example, from consultants, solicitors, the Charity Commission or the National Council for Voluntary Organisations - and we can balance our books by raising mortgages, selling assets, or making staff redundant.We can even close the charity down.

Trustees are also protected, individually and collectively, by the 'democratic' majority vote. Policy decisions are ostensibly made in council of management meetings, and, in theory, every trustee is supposed to take fully informed decisions. In reality, trustees do not need to know the first thing about their charity, nor have any knowledge of the role of the voluntary sector, and can with impunity accept without question a 'here's one we made earlier' policy recommendation from a sub- committee, sub-group or staff member.A majority vote from those trustees present at the council of management meeting is all that is required; trustees who are absent, or those who disagree, can do nothing about a decision accepted by the majority, even though the out-voted minority is as responsible, in law, as its colleagues in the majority.

I became a trustee simply by being proposed and seconded by two other members of the organisation; the only qualification necessary was that I must be the relative of a mentally ill person.I received virtually no trustee training, there has been no performance evaluation, and I could have resigned at any time. At the end of this year I will have completed my four-year term and somebody will replace me.

I will not take any responsibility for the consequences of decisions made during my trusteeship, although, in law, I am supposed to.This lack of accountability in the management of charities, is, in my view, the fault of the Charity Commission. The commission provides clear rules on trustees' responsibilities but leaves it to the collective management of a charity to ensure that trustees understand and accept their responsibilities. The voluntary sector needs better regulation.

By Rosemary Moore

(Appreared in the 8-page Supplement - Inside the Voluntary Sector. Community
Care 25-31 August 1994)

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