What is the role of a charity trustee? There are at least several roles or archetypes that every board member will (or should!) encounter on their journey.
I hope that the following will help board members – new and seasoned – to explore their role more fully and hopefully increase the value of their contributions to the charities they serve.
1. The board member as ‘steward’
This is concerned with what I call the ‘legal governance’ side of board membership. So, this role is focused on the propriety of governance and ensuring that the charity is acting legally and correctly. It is a process role – minutes are taken, decisions recorded, transparency assured. At a deeper level though, this role is concerned with the efficiency of governance.
2. The board member as ‘captain of the ship’
This is a role that many board members initially struggle with. As ‘captain of the ship’ the board’s role includes plotting the course or voyage of the charity. The best advice I can give is “the board manages the CEO who manages the operation of the charity." In other words, as a board member, generally stick to board work and not day to day operational work.
3. The board member as ‘risk manager’
Many board members raise their attention when they perceive the risks attached to doing something – for example, introducing a new service. However, there are also risks attached to NOT doing something! Also, if your charity does not have a risk register, then insist on one being produced. Risks that go unrecorded tend to get ignored until it is too late.
4. The board member as ‘helper’
There is an exception to the role of ‘captain.’ Board members need to be able to take work away from the board and not just bring it to it. Many charities are at capacity in terms of workloads. It’s likely that ideas for improvement are on the team’s radar but there just isn’t enough time. This is where the board member can step in and help break these log jams.
5. The board member as the ‘voice of the beneficiary’
Who is the voice of your beneficiary on the board? And if you have a voice of your beneficiaries on the board, can you be sure it is the authentic voice of most of your beneficiaries? Whenever a decision is required from the board, the keystone question you need to ask as a board member is ‘how does this improve the lot of our beneficiaries?’
6. The board member as ‘storyteller’ or ‘ambassador’
In the commercial world, I remember being told by a colleague that “everyone is in sales.” Applying this to the charity sector, it surprises me that many board members don’t understand their ambassadorial role. You need a story to tell potential funders or donors about your charity.
7. The board member as ‘interpreter’
This role is about what I call ‘practical governance.’ By this, I mean the art or science of discerning what is happening in the wider world and relating this back to your charity so that it may act in a meaningful way to wider events. As a board member, you can screen what is happening in the wider world and bring the nuggets of crucial information back to your board.
8. The board member as ‘explorer’
Charity boards will be faced with uncharted territory such as the pandemic or cost-of-living crisis. Board members need to be alive to opportunities – even in tough times. For example, collaboration within the sector is far from a mature but can produce better outcomes. As an explorer, the role of the board member is to look beyond the horizon.
9. The board member as ‘challenger’
The art is knowing when and why to mount a challenge to board business. I am not advocating that you challenge everything but, as a trustee, you need a healthy sense of being confident to challenge board matters, for example where it drives towards a better result for beneficiaries or financial sustainability.
10. The board member as ‘legacy maker’
As a board member you are there to change the world for the betterment of your beneficiaries. Your mission from day one should be to think “how will I be remembered when I stand down from the board?” As soon as you become a board member, write down what you want your legacy to be and then work assiduously towards it.
So, what is the role of a board member? Being a board member isn’t plain sailing but please think about these roles and where you may be able to adopt them. We all must adopt distinct roles in life and being a board member is no different – it is how quickly and effectively we adopt these roles that makes the real difference.
Cranfield Trust is the UK’s leading provider of pro bono business support for charities and Community Interest Companies (CICs). For over 30 years, we have supported charities tackling society’s most pressing human welfare issues. Through our work, we build and strengthen the capability of charities and the charity sector, making it more sustainable for society today and for future generations. Through our services, together with our 1,400 strong network of skilled volunteers, we help charities to develop business strategies, improve financial performance and explore innovative approaches to leadership. We are able to provide our services free to charities, thanks to the generous support of our volunteers, funders, corporate supporters and individual donors. To find out more about volunteering for us, how we support charities or to make a donation, visit www.cranfieldtrust.org.
*The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.