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Q&A on charities, trustees and the law

What is a charity trustee?

Charity trustees are the people who have general control of a charity. They are ultimately responsible for the charity although not necessarily the day-to-day running of it. They are sometimes called the board, management committee, or the directors.

Do I need special qualifications to become a charity trustee?

No, at least nothing official. But you definitely need an interest in the charity's work, and the time and energy to help it achieve its objectives. Generally, anyone over 18 (16 in some cases) can become a trustee, unless they have been convicted of an offence involving dishonesty or deception. Ideally, charities will look for a mix of trustees with a wide range of skills and interests. But enthusiasm and commitment are often the most important qualities required.

What do I actually have to do? Attend a few meetings?

It's a bit more than that. The time commitment involved will vary greatly depending on the size and nature of the charity, so it is a good idea to check this out prior to signing up. But the overriding duty of all trustees is to advance the purposes of their charity and act in its best interests.

What exactly does that mean?

The trustees must make sure that the charity's resources are used only for the purposes of the charity. They must also make sure that the charity is run in accordance with its governing document (or constitution), charity law, and any other laws and regulations which affect its activities.

The trustees are responsible for a charity's vision and mission and, even if they delegate, are accountable if things go wrong. Trustees must act reasonably and prudently in all matters relating to their charity. They have a duty to act collectively, so all trustees should take an active role, and they must avoid any conflict between their personal interests and those of the charity.

How do I find out what the charity's purposes are?

A charity's purposes will be written down in its constitution. Most charities are registered with the Charity Commission which has details of the objects of all registered charities on its website.

Can I delegate my responsibilities?

Usually. Once the trustees have made a decision about something they can ask staff, or volunteers, to put it into practice. However, if trustees want to delegate actual decision-making to staff, or to smaller sub-committees, there must be a power in the constitution allowing them to do this.

Can I be paid?

Not usually. It is a fundamental rule that in most circumstances trustees cannot receive any benefit from the charity. Most people are happy to become a trustee out of a commitment to the charity's cause or a sense of civic duty.

However, there are some exceptions. Provided the charity's constitution doesn’t prohibit it, many charities can pay their trustees for certain specific work they undertake. So a trustee with a particular skill, such as a builder or a fundraiser, could be paid for providing that service, as long as certain safeguards are followed. However, a trustee cannot be paid for performing his or her duties as a trustee, such as participating in trustee meetings. Nor can they become a paid employee of the charity.

Sometimes the constitution will contain an express power to pay trustees in certain circumstances.

Generally, if a trustee has a potential conflict of interest, especially where he or she is receiving a financial benefit from the charity, they should make sure that the charity is aware of it, and should not take part in any decisions on the issue. Conflicts of interest policies are a good idea.

What about expenses?

Trustees can recover reasonable out-of-pocket expenses.

Are there any liabilities involved?

In theory, yes, but in practice it’s highly unlikely.

If a trustee does not act in accordance with the duties imposed by charity law then the Charity Commission and the courts can order them to reimburse the charity for any loss that has been suffered by the charity as a result. In practice, claims of this kind are almost unheard of: essentially, provided trustees can show that they have been acting reasonably it is unlikely that they will be criticised under charity law. Specialist trustee indemnity insurance can be taken out (and in most cases paid for by the charity) to protect trustees. The policy will generally apply so long as the trustee concerned has been acting in good faith.

If a charity is unincorporated there is a risk that the trustees may be made personally liable for the charity's debts if it becomes insolvent. Again, in practice, this is very rare, but in order to guard against this risk many charities have decided to incorporate.

How do I actually become a trustee?

Trustees are usually recruited through word of mouth or an advertisement. The trustees need to be formally appointed, using the procedure in the charity’s constitution. For example, some constitutions allow the members of the charity, or the existing trustees themselves, to make appointments. Sometimes outside bodies have powers to appoint trustees.

It may sound obvious, but you should find out as much as you can about the charity before deciding to become a trustee. Charities are encouraged to make trustees aware of their responsibilities, and should give new trustees a proper induction.

Once I have become a charity trustee, can I stop if I want to?

It is usually possible for a trustee to resign by simply letting the charity know that they do not wish to act anymore.

Do I need to tell anyone that I have become a charity trustee?

Most charities are registered with the Charity Commission, which will send out an annual return each year asking for information about who the current trustees are. If your charity is a company, you will also need to tell Companies House that you have become a trustee.

What does it mean to become the chair or the treasurer of a charity?

Some trustees have particular roles. The chair, for example, is likely to be a figurehead for the organisation, and may have a special relationship with senior staff members. If there is a treasurer, they will be responsible for explaining the financial situation to the rest of the trustees. However, responsibility for decision-making still lies with all of the trustees.

Where can I get further advice on my duties?

Bates Wells Braithwaite produces a free pocket size guide to Duties of Charity Trustees.

The Charity Commission's website has a wealth of information for charity trustees. Of particular relevance are:

CC3 The essential trustee

CC11 Trustees expenses and payments

CC24 Users on board


CC30 Finding new trustees

BWB's partner organisation, OnBoard provides bespoke training and support to trustees. You can view their upcoming events by clicking here

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