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How to do due diligence before becoming a charity trustee

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I’m often asked about the kind of research you should do, when looking at an advert for a charity trustee role and deciding whether to apply.  How can you find out what you’re getting into?  What questions should you ask? 

My first experience on a charity board began in 2013.  I had good support in finding out about the charity beforehand, through conversations with both the Chair and another trustee.  There was also a new trustee Induction Session shortly after joining.  Looking at my recent finance committee role, I was invited to participate in a committee meeting as an observer first, before joining the committee.  Having contact with others already involved in the board/committee before you take on the role is helpful.  It means you go in with the benefit of a heads-up on current priorities. 

Here are my top ten tips if you’re looking to take on a charity trustee role, to help guide your due diligence:


1         What’s the background to the trustee vacancy?

Try to find out why the charity is looking for a new trustee.  Is it filling a specific gap in expertise around the board table?  Has someone’s tenure come to an end (a three year term or six year term, for example).   Ask questions if there’s a high number of vacancies at the same time.


2         Is the charity up-to-date with its filings with OSCR?

Check out the OSCR website – are there any red flags for overdue or late filing of the charity’s annual return?  If so, try to find out about the reasons behind that.


3         What type of charity is it?

What is the underlying legal form of the charity – is it a deed of trust or unincorporated association, or is it something else?  It would be helpful to see the charity’s governing document.  If it’s a deed of trust or unincorporated association, go in with eyes open – these forms of charity involve the potential for more personal liability for trustees, as compared to a company limited by guarantee or SCIO.   You might want more reassurance in a situation where the charity has extensive activities and operations, as compared to a grant-making charity.  Many charities use the word “Trust” in their name, but the underlying legal form of the charity may be something else, so best to check the governing document.


4         What other committees could I get involved in?

What kinds of sub-committees does the charity have, and will you be expected to join one of them?  A sub-committee is a great way to support more aspects of the charity’s operations and could give you insight into finance, audit, risk, nominations, HR, fundraising or other areas.  It’s best to get clear on the level of time commitment, as this could double the number of meetings you attend each year. 


5         Is the charity at risk of running out of money?

Check out the charity’s finances from their most recent annual report and accounts, usually available on the website of the charity.  What are its finances like?


6         Search online

Have a look online at the charity’s website and its most recent annual report and accounts, for insight into the charity’s activities.  Search online for any news reports, and ask about any areas of concern so you can find out any important context around news reports.


7         How long have others been on the board?

How long have the CEO, Chair and other trustees been in role?  What does the governing document say about length of tenure?  It’s not unusual for there to be a term of 3 years for a trustee, say, which can be extended to a second term of 3 years (or even a maximum third term of 3 years).  A board full of very long serving trustees may not be a healthy signal. 


8         What are the key relationships like?

What is the relationship like between the CEO and Chair?  What’s the relationship like between the Chair and other board members? 


9         What are the logistics around meetings?

How often are meetings held?  Where are they held, and at what time of day?  Do you have the option to dial-in?  The geography and timing needs to match your availability. 


10     Are there any other expectations?

Does the charity have any other expectations of board members? For example, representing the charity at sector events?  Liaising with other stakeholders?  Supporting funding applications? 


Taking on a charity trustee role is a great way to volunteer your time, and gain new experience, with a charity.  Doing some research before getting involved will help you go in with your eyes open. 


For more insight in this area, check out the SCVO guidance on recruitment and induction of charity trustees.


Julie Hutchison is the Charities Specialist at Standard Life Wealth