Setting up and running a charity – guidance

Charity trustee: what’s involved

Find out what being a charity trustee involves, if you can claim expenses and where to get help and advice.

About charity trustees

Trustees have overall control of a charity and are responsible for making sure it’s doing what it was set up to do. They may be known by other titles, such as:

  • directors
  • board members
  • governors
  • committee members

Whatever title they have in a particular charity, trustees are the people who lead the charity and decide how it is run. Being a trustee means making decisions that will impact on people’s lives. Depending on what the charity does, you will be making a difference to your local community or to society as a whole.

Trustees use their skills and experience to support their charities, helping them achieve their aims. Trustees also often learn new skills and develop into new areas during their time on the board.

Most trustees don’t get paid for their role, but you can claim reasonable expenses as a trustee - see Payments to trustees: what the rules are.

Trustee roles and responsibilities

Trustees make sure the charity is running well and is doing what it was set up to do. This includes ensuring the charity:

  • has the money it needs
  • spends its money sensibly, on the activities it was raised for
  • follows the law, including preparing reports and accounts to send to the Charity Commission
  • doesn’t break the rules in its governing document (its constitution, trust deed or articles)

Trustees of smaller charities might take on all or most of the work of running the charity. In larger charities, trustees often delegate the day-to-day operations to the staff and senior management.

As a trustee, you will use your skills and experience to make sure the charity runs efficiently. But trustees are allowed to get advice from external sources like solicitors or other experts if they need to.

Making decisions

Charity trustees make decisions about their charity together, working as a team. Decisions don’t usually need to be unanimous as long as the majority of trustees agree. They’re usually made at charity meetings.

Research potential risks carefully before making a decision, especially before your charity enters into any contracts or borrows money.

It’s extremely rare for trustees to become personally liable for the charity losing money. But this could happen if trustees, for example:

  • behave irresponsibly or dishonestly, causing the charity to lose money
  • don’t take appropriate steps to manage serious risks, for example by following safety procedures

Chair and treasurer trustee roles

Some trustees have special roles, such as the chair and the treasurer. They are known as officers.

The charity treasurer:

  • makes sure the charity is keeping the proper accounts
  • takes the lead on making policies for finances and investments

The chair:

  • helps plan trustee meetings
  • may represent the charity at events
  • might also work as a link between trustees and staff

Charity officers don’t have any extra powers or responsibilities than the other trustees. All trustees are equally responsible for finances, for example.

  • follow the law and the rules in the charity’s governing document
  • act responsibly and only in the interests of the charity
  • use reasonable care and skill
  • make well-informed decisions, taking advice when you need to

Find out more about your role as a trustee in The essential trustee: what you need to know (CC3)

How to become a trustee

If you’re interested in becoming a trustee, you could contact a charity and ask how you can get involved. You could also look for vacancies in newspapers or online, using these directories:

Before you become a trustee, it’s a good idea to find out as much as you can about the charity and what it does. For example you could ask to:

  • read the charity’s important documents, such as its governing document, policies, accounts and annual report
  • meet existing trustees or senior staff
  • find out what training or induction you will get as a new trustee

The existing trustees might also invite you to sit in on a meeting or meet some of the people the charity helps before you accept the role.

A number of organisations provide help and advice to new trustees:

Help offered Organisation
Information and support about the trustee role National Council for Voluntary Organisations, National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (in England) or Wales Council for Voluntary Action
Advice on charity governance and strategy Cass Centre for Charity Effectiveness
Advice on charity accounting and reporting Charity Finance Group
Online training for trustees TrusteElearning

People who can’t be trustees

Some people are disqualified by law from acting as trustees. You can’t be a trustee if you:

  • have an unspent conviction for an offence involving dishonesty or deception
  • are currently declared bankrupt, subject to bankruptcy restrictions or an interim order
  • have an individual voluntary arrangement to pay off debts with creditors
  • are disqualified from being a company director
  • have previously been removed as a trustee by either the commission or the high court due to misconduct or mismanagement

Age restrictions

If the charity is a trust or unincorporated association, you must be over 18 to be a trustee. If the charity is a company or charitable incorporated association (CIO), the minimum age is 16.

Become a charity contact

Types of charity contact

When an organisation applies to be a registered charity, one of the first things the commission asks for is contact (or correspondent) details.

Contact details, including a postal address, appear on the public register of charities.

There are two types of charity contact:

  • individual contact
  • organisation contact

Individual contact

This is usually a named person and may be one of the trustees, such as the secretary. It could even be someone who volunteers or works for the charity. As the main point of contact they should have a good working knowledge of the charity.

The address does not need to be a home address of an individual, but the commission only records one contact address per person.

Organisation contact

This is used if the charity does not want a named individual as a point of contact – for example it could be the charity solicitor’s address or the charity’s own address.

Some charities, such as women’s refuges, often use PO box addresses to maintain a safe and secure location.

You should be able to receive post easily from the address you provide.

How the commission contacts your charity

Most of the commission’s contact with charities is now done by email, so it is important that you keep your email addresses up to date.

The commission can hold two addresses for a charity:

  • a private email address for commission use only – when it issues new passwords and for annual return mailings
  • a public address – this is displayed on the public register of charities

If the email addresses are out of date, your charity could miss out on important communications.

If you don’t meet your legal requirement to keep your charity’s details up-to-date, the commission may remove it from the the public register of charities because it has no evidence that it’s still operating.

Change your contact details

Before your charity’s contact leaves, they need to:

  1. Tell the commission who the new contact will be.
  2. Hand over the charity’s online services password to someone else.

Update your charity’s contact details online - changes are made overnight and will appear the following day.

Report serious incidents

As a trustee, you must report any serious incident in your charity to the commission as soon as possible.