Charity trustees win helpline

THE MANY people who give their time voluntarily as trustees of charitable organisations - and in doing so take on unlimited personal liability for their actions - have a new place to turn to for advice.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has opened a free telephone helpline, specifically to advise charity trustees on their legal and financial obligations.

The move coincides with the NCVO's publication of the Good Trustee Guide, a comprehensive loose-leaf handbook covering charity law and management. It follows the release, late last year, of a free video on trustee responsibilities, produced by the Charity Commission.

No one knows how many charity trustees there are, although with 170,000 registered charities in England and Wales alone the total may run to many hundreds of thousands of people. The Charities Acts of 1992 and 1993 have introduced tighter controls and a more rigorous regulatory regime. However, a NCVO survey in 1992 suggested that many trustees were ignorant of their responsibilities.

'The telephone helpline is being run very much as an experiment, to give advice on trustees' roles,' says Kate Kirkland, head of NCVO's Trustee Services Unit. She argues that more people need to be encouraged to become trustees. 'I would like to see a much wider group drawn in - not just the great and the good and the retired colonels.'

Some of the financial risks of trusteeship may have been reduced as a result of recent Charity Commission clarification of its views on trustees' indemnity insurance. This type of cover offers protection for trustees against personal liability for breaches of trust (although not for other types of liability).

However its development has raised the issue of whether charities are permitted to use their own funds to benefit trustees in this way. The Commission has now reaffirmed that charities can take out trustee insurance but added that they must remain personally responsible where they deliberately act in 'wilful disregard' of their legal powers of trust.

Ms Kirkland warns trustees to read the insurance conditions carefully. 'They may think that it's giving absolute protection against everything, but it isn't,' she says.

Good Trustee Guide, pounds 8.95 plus pounds 3 p&p from NCVO, 071-713 6161. Trustee helpline on 071-833-1818.