The Importance of being a Trustee
By Kathy Wormald
Officially the role of a trustee should be on the governance of the organisation. They play a very important role in making sure that the charity is run in the interests of the people, or in our case, the wildlife, that it is there to support. They ensure that the charity hasa clear strategy, and that its work and goals are in line with its vision. They are the ‘guardians of purpose’, making sure that all decisions put the needs of the beneficiary first. Well if this is not daunting enough, most trustees find that their roles incorporate a lot more than this. For most charities, particularly the smaller ones the volunteer trustees play a central role in ensuring that the day-to-day operations of the charity are running as smoothly as possible.
Although the role of some trustees is wide and varied, it is also very interesting. Being a charity trustee gives people who wish to volunteer the opportunity to obtain inside knowledge on how charities operate, the challenges they face and the complexity of their fundingstreams. Trustees with specific expertise can give an enormous amount to a charity, most small charities do not have the resources to employ expertise in areas such as human resources, fundraising, IT or legal matters and help in these areas is incredibly valuable.
I am the CEO of The Froglife Trust, a wildlife conservation charity, with a specific focus on the conservation of reptiles and amphibians, and their habitats. It is not easy to garner support for these species, they are often viewed as uncharismatic and not liked, so it is really important for us that our trustees are knowledgeable about our species and committed to our cause. We have eight trustees on our board, three of these bring professional wildlife conservation and species specific expertise. However, because we are passionate about encouraging people from all walks of life to get involved in our work and most of our work is ‘on the ground’ taking direct action to conserve our species, our other trustees bring different experiences. We have trustees with creative arts, social services, business and engineering expertise. Engineering I hear you say, what has that got to do with wildlife conservation! Well quite a lot actually. We do a lot of building work such as building and installing dipping platforms, interpretation boards and boardwalks and some of our research requires engineering skills such as making frames for wildlife cameras, so this skill set is very useful to us. We also pride ourselves on reaching hard to reach communities through creative projects, our trustees that bring creative and social work expertise help us a lot in this field. Whilst trustees with business backgrounds help us with our trading company, financial, HR and other matters.
“I became a Trustee of Froglife because I think the organisation takes a very broad and imaginative approach to the conservation of and promotion of interest in the UK’s amphibians and reptiles. As a professional herpetologist, I felt that I could help Froglife develop, but also that I could gain from interactions with the organisation’s enthusiastic staff and other trustees.” Roger Downie, Froglife Vice Chair.
I am very fortunate at Froglife to have a very supportive board of trustees, who are happy to help out and provide their expert opinion, but refrain from meddling. It is important for trustees to remember that their responsibility is the governance of the organisation and they pay their staff to look after the day-to-day operations. However, getting the balance right can be tricky, particularly when you are asking your trustees for their specialist opinion. This often means that they need to have the detail of the issue that advice is sought on, and sometimes the boundaries dobecome murky, and it is not unknown for trustees to stray into the territory of the senior management. This is entirely understandable but also needs to be checked and trustees often have to take a discretionary view on matters. This does make the role of the trustee very interesting and informative.
Trustees offer their time on a voluntary basis, and as a former trustee of several organisations myself, I think that this is a great way to give your time to a charity. Many people have a lot to offer and by giving up some time you can make a big difference. Being a trustee can also help to further your career, it could lead to employment or help when applying for more senior roles.
It is best if the board reflects societal diversity, it helps the charity to understand the needs of all groups and how to engage with people from varied backgrounds. The reality is that many charities battle to attract such diversity. Some argue that the reason for the lack of diversity is that the board consists of those who are passionate about the cause and this excludes some people. I would argue that there are people in every culture and society that care about certain causes, our job is to find the ones that care about our cause and encourage them to be involved.
Finally a big thank you to all trustees that are contributing, your efforts are greatly appreciated, and to those reading this who are not currently a trustee an invite to consider getting more involved in a cause close to your heart.