Why be a Charity Trustee?

02 November 2020

There are over 1 million charity Trustees in the UK who play a pivotal role in the success of a charity. Our own Not-for-Profit sector specialist, Partner Stuart McKay, has many years of experience as a charity Trustee and is incredibly passionate about the role. In this rapid-fire Q&A, Stuart explains what he enjoyed most about the role and how his experience helps him to relate to his clients, along with some advice for anyone wanting to become a Trustee.

What made you want to become a charity Trustee, and what have you gained?

I work in the Not for Profit sector as an auditor and I always had a passion for the sector but wanted to get more involved - becoming a charity Trustee allowed me to do that. At the same time, a close member of the family was recovering from successful treatment from Cancer, which inspired me to learn more about this disease and in doing so, I saw how woefully underfunded it was.

In my 8 years as a Trustee with a Cancer charity, I have seen the Charity grow substantially and learnt about research funding and the difficult decisions in prioritising the type of work we funded. I also saw the strength of the community which had formed behind this terrible disease, and the passion and determination in the face of something so devastating.

What does being a Trustee actually involve?

I often equate the role of a Trustee to being a non-executive on a Board of a PLC - you are there to set the strategic direction of the Charity and oversee the governance of the organisation. The best bit of being a Trustee is the diversity, it’s such a varied role so you get to do everything! There is a very serious element to the role of course, as Trustees are ultimately responsible for the Charity and the role needs to be taken very seriously. However, your fellow Trustees can be the closest team mates you will ever have, and you will challenge each other as well as the executives.

What advice would you give to anyone starting out as a Trustee?

Don’t be afraid to be outside your comfort zone. The best advice I was given was “don’t just do the finances”. As an accountant I was always going to stay in my comfort zone, and it took confidence to get involved in other areas such as marketing, fundraising and research. I always struggled with the science aspect but that ended up being a benefit, as I could ask the “stupid” questions from a lay perspective. Other Trustees were more than happy to help me gain a sufficient understanding so that I was able to contribute to discussions and provide suggestions based on my own opinions.

What are the barriers to people becoming Trustees, in your experience?

I would say there are three key barriers – Understanding, Confidence and Time.

Understanding – I am not sure there is huge awareness of the existence of Trustees or an understanding of our roles. There can sometimes be misconceptions about our status – we are volunteers.

Confidence – this is another misconception. People often think they don’t have the skills or know enough about the cause when actually they do! It’s always good to have something to offer in terms of skills (PR, legal etc) but nobody knows everything! So, it’s a great opportunity to learn something new and apply your transferable skills to a new challenge.

Time – due to the voluntary nature of the role, there is a time commitment that needs to be made, which is often a barrier. I think this aspect is one of the reasons that the average age of a Trustee is older, at 59 years of age. However, I do wonder how many people ask their employers if they can have a certain amount of time as part of a CSR commitment. I firmly believe that firms are not being asked to make this commitment from their employees, so I encourage more people to ask!

How has being a Trustee yourself given you insight into the challenges your clients in the not-for-profit sector face?

Being a Trustee has been invaluable - it has allowed me to view my own role from the ‘other side’. This in turn has made me adapt the information I present to Trustees as their auditor, aiming to focus on the key areas that they will be concerned with.

I hope that has given readers a good glimpse into the life of Trustee, and maybe even inspired someone to get involved with a cause they are passionate about!

MHA Trustee Hub

At MHA we have been supporting our clients in the charity sector for many years and we have plenty of practical guidance to share so that charity governance and financial competency can be improved. 

If you are a Trustee yourself, please visit the MHA Trustee Hub for plenty of practical guidance and resources.

Contact us

If you have any questions about the topics raised in this article or would like to discuss your charities accounting and business advisory needs with one of our specialists, please contact Stuart McKay or a member of the Not for Profit team directly, or alternatively send us an online enquiry.