Often perceived as valuable for their names and connections or dismissed as background figures, it seems that trustees - and those appointing them - are having to sharpen up their ideas and understand their responsibilities.
This is partly because the Charities Act 1992, which is being enforced progressively, defines the duties of trustees in greater detail; and also because trustees in medium to large organisations are finding the staff increasingly professional and competitive.
'The danger is that the charity is run by the professionals and not by the original founding father's mission,' says Winifred Tumim, chair of a working party formed by the Charity Commission and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) to investigate training for trustees.
It seems that many trustees have quite a way to go. According to a survey carried out for On Trust, the working party's report, published in September, two out of three trustees were not aware they were trustees at all.
'Some people think they are on a management committee, which is what many of the smaller charities call their board of trustees, but plainly if you don't know you are a trustee or what your responsibilities are, it is unlikely that you are doing your job absolutely up to scratch,' says Mrs Tumim.
All charity trustees can be personally liable for breach of trust - if they have failed to show care resulting in the charity suffering a financial loss, or if they act outside the charity's objects, such as spending money on unpermitted political activities.
The report feels that the ad hoc selection process of most trustees for charities is basically sound. ' The great thing is to tap people's
enthusiasm and commitment and give them the additional skill they need,' says Mrs Tumim.
At grass roots level, where a self-help group has formed, for instance, problems can arise because each member has their own highly charged personal agenda which can obscure the organisation's needs as a whole. 'You expend an enormous amount of your time, energy and ego - it is a form of therapy even though you are doing it for others. So if it turns out that you are rather incompetent, or you drive people mad, then it is very sad,' Mrs Tumim says.
'Founding father' syndrome is another problem. Mrs Tumim mediated in a quarrel where the founder of an organisation had become an adviser but could not stop interfering and stepping on everyone's toes, from the new chairman downwards. 'He was ruining the very thing he started.' It is crucial that potential trustees fully inform themselves about the charity and that it, in turn, is clear about its needs. Mrs Tumim advises people to ensure they are being asked for the right reasons and that they have relevant experience; to ask about the legal and managerial responsibilities; to find out how much time is needed, not just for meetings, but for necessary reading and travelling.
Another aspect that is often overlooked is job satisfaction and enjoyment. 'There must be some potential for fun - people are giving their time for nothing and they deserve to be interested and encouraged,' says Mrs Tumim.
Job training is vitally necessary if trustees are going to keep up. On Trust recommends that training is tailored: an inner-city self-help group running on a shoestring will not be able to afford a day course, but a presentation about a financial issue might be appropriate before a meeting.
The NCVO is forming a trustee services development unit which will be ready in mid-January. It will encourage trainers to teach trustees and will also provide information packs relevant to the differing types of charity.
The NCVO has been fielding more inquiries recently from alarmed trustees. 'Some are concerned that being a trustee is becoming more complex; they are worried about their liabilities. We don't want to frighten trustees off,' says Tim Dartington, Head of Management Development at the NCVO.
Apart from a financial training course, Mrs Tumim says she has had no training during her seven years as chairman of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. Perhaps I'd have been more effective earlier on if I had had some of the knowledge I feel others should have now.'
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