Setting up and running a charity – guidance

Trustee board: people and skills

How to get the right people with the right skills on your charity's trustee board.

When to recruit trustees

You may be recruiting trustees for the first time or you need to replace someone who’s left. Even if you have a stable body of experienced trustees, refreshing your trustee board is an opportunity to:

  • bring in new ways of reaching your beneficiaries
  • keep pace with developments in technology
  • get new ideas or contacts to help you raise funds

Think about how you want to take your charity forward in the future and how you as trustees could develop in order to do this.

Trustee length of service

Your charity’s governing document may say how long trustee appointments should last, and whether trustees can be reappointed after their term ends. Otherwise there are no set limits.

Legal requirement: you must follow your governing document’s rules about trustee appointments and length of service.

Always check that your governing document’s rules about trustee numbers and length of service are appropriate, particularly if your charity grows or changes the way it works.

When recruiting your first board of trustees, aim to stagger the lengths of the first appointments so that the trustees don’t all change at once.

Identify the skills you have

Your trustees may have untapped skills and experience from previous trusteeships, work or voluntary activity. A skills audit can help you build a picture of this.

As well as skills, consider if your trustees’ background and experiences can help:

  • bring different points of view to a discussion
  • give insight into your beneficiaries’ needs and experience
  • make contacts in the community
  • think of new ways of doing things

For example, a charity that works with young people might have young people as trustees or advisers as well as older people who bring experience. You’ll get a wider range of experience if you recruit a mix of male and female trustees with different social or ethnic backgrounds and abilities.

Charity trustees need to be over 18 (or over 16 for CIOs and company charities). Make sure you know what checks are needed.

Develop your trustee board

Once you have a clear picture of your trustee board’s existing skills and attributes, think about what’s missing.

You could fill gaps in skills or experience by:

  • building on the skills of your existing trustees
  • training your existing trustees
  • working or sharing expertise with other charities
  • recruiting new trustees to meet specific skills gaps

The Charity Commission regulates charities but doesn’t train trustees. Trustees can get general information and support about their role from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (in England) or Wales Council for Voluntary Action.

Cass Centre for Charity Effectiveness can advise on charity governance and strategy, and Charity Finance Group can help with accounting and reporting.

Reach can help identify trustees and others who can assist with charity projects. Small Charities Coalition can help find trustees for smaller charities and encourage skill sharing between charities. Cranfield Trust can assist charities that may not need a trustee but need a particular skill.

Trustees can get online training in a variety of topics at TrusteElearning.

How to find new trustees

Who to recruit

Recruit trustees who have the experience and skills your charity needs. They need to be interested in the charity’s work and be willing to give their time to help run it.

Being a trustee takes commitment. Don’t appoint trustees because of their status or position in the community alone – these people may be better as patrons.

How many trustees to recruit

Your charity’s governing document may say how many trustees you should have and how they are appointed.

Legal requirement: you must follow your governing document’s rules when recruiting trustees.

Aim for a minimum of three unconnected trustees with a good range of skills. You need enough trustees to govern the charity effectively. It’s also important to keep your board small enough to arrange meetings easily and allow effective discussion and decision making.

How to encourage people to apply

To attract a broader range of trustees – including young people – you could:

  • try recruitment methods other than word of mouth, such as social media, advertising or trustee recruitment websites
  • encourage people who already support your charity, for example as volunteers, to become trustees
  • approach local universities or colleges and their student unions

Remove any barriers that could stop someone from being a trustee, for example by:

  • keeping board papers (particularly financial information) short and easy to understand
  • translating documents or providing accessible formats
  • making it clear that trustees can claim reasonable expenses, including help with travel and childcare
  • holding meetings at venues that are accessible for people with disabilities
  • having meetings at times that don’t exclude people who are working or have caring responsibilities
  • giving everyone a chance to contribute to discussions at meetings

If you ask someone who benefits from the charity to become a trustee, you must manage potential conflicts of interest if they will continue to receive those benefits.

Check prospective trustees are eligible

You must be at least 18 years old to be a charity trustee (16 if your charity is a company or charitable incorporated organisation (CIO)).

Some people are disqualified by law from acting as charity trustees. Subject to waiver provisions, this includes anyone who:

  • has an unspent conviction for an offence involving dishonesty or deception
  • is currently declared bankrupt (or is subject to bankruptcy restrictions or an interim order) or has an individual voluntary agreement (IVA) with creditors
  • is disqualified from being a company director
  • has previously been removed as a trustee by either the commission or the High Court due to misconduct or mismanagement

It is normally an offence to act as a trustee while disqualified unless the commission has given a waiver. Special provisions apply to charitable companies. Find out more about disqualifications and waivers of disqualification in the commission’s staff guidance.

You can ask potential trustees to sign a declaration form to confirm that all necessary checks have been made and they can legally accept the appointment.

If you work with children or vulnerable adults

If your charity works with children or vulnerable adults, the commission will ask to see a copy of your charity’s child or vulnerable adult protection policy if you apply to register it.

Carry out Disclosure and Barring Service checks (formerly CRB checks) on potential trustees if it’s appropriate to do so.

By law, anyone who has previously been barred by the Independent Safeguarding Authority from working with children or vulnerable adults can’t take on a role that would give them access to those people.

As trustees, you have a duty of care to prevent risks to your charity’s reputation as well as the people it helps. If your charity works with vulnerable groups, you need to decide if it’s appropriate to have a trustee who is barred from working with children or vulnerable adults.

Trustees who live outside the UK

You can appoint someone who lives outside the UK as a trustee. This includes:

  • non-British citizens
  • people in the UK on temporary visas or seeking asylum
  • British citizens who live abroad

Check that the person is eligible to be a trustee and the appointment is:

  • allowed by your charity’s governing document (check for any residential or similar restrictions)
  • in your charity’s best interests

Consider how you’ll deal with practical issues with having a trustee who lives abroad, such as how and where to hold meetings, including telephone and video conferencing. You need to make sure that the benefits of the appointment outweigh any issues or problems.

For example, if you appoint someone seeking asylum as a trustee, they’ll have to leave the UK if their application is turned down. Their trusteeship won’t be sufficient reason for them to stay and they may then decide to resign as a trustee.

If a trustee doesn’t take part in governing the charity because they are overseas, but they don’t resign, it puts additional pressure on the other trustees.

The trustees may also find it harder to get a quorum at their meetings. You can only remove a trustee by using a legal power in your governing document or the law.

Tell your trustees what’s involved

Make sure all your charity’s trustees understand their responsibilities and liabilities. Directors of charitable companies also have responsibilities under company law.

Give each new trustee a copy of your charity’s governing document, accounts and financial information, policies and anything else that explains how it works.

Trustee role and responsibilities

As trustees, you must:

  • always act in the best interests of the charity – you must not let your personal interests, views or prejudices affect your conduct as a trustee
  • act reasonably and responsibly in all matters relating to your charity – act with as much care as if you were dealing with your own affairs, taking advice if you need it
  • only use your charity’s income and property for the purposes set out in its governing document
  • make decisions in line with good practice and the rules set by your charity’s governing document, including excluding any trustee who has a conflict of interest from discussions or decision-making on the matter

Legal requirement: beyond reasonable expenses, your charity’s trustees should not financially benefit from it without specific authorisation from either its governing document or the commission. Trustees must avoid situations where their duties as a trustee conflict with their own personal interests.

Risks and trustee liability

You can be liable to your charity if you act unlawfully or negligently as a trustee. Although your charity might run up debts or other liabilities as a result of decisions you make, you and the other trustees won’t be liable if you have:

  • acted lawfully, responsibly and reasonably
  • followed the rules in your charity’s governing document
  • taken reasonable steps to manage risks

But if you can’t prove this, you could be ‘in breach of trust’ to your own charity. Trustees act jointly when running a charity, so the trustees as a group would be liable to repay any loss to the charity.

The commission can take trustees to court to recover funds lost to their charity as a result of a breach of trust.

You can also be liable to another person if your charity isn’t a charitable company or CIO. If you enter into contracts to provide services or employ staff, you could be personally liable for any debts your charity can’t pay from its money or assets.

This means your charity’s creditors can sue the trustees personally to recover money they’re owed, even if there hasn’t been a breach of trust. Trustees who have acted properly can be reimbursed from charity funds, providing the charity can afford to repay them.

Give trustees specific roles

Clear role descriptions for trustees and specific officers on the trustee board will help your trustees understand their duties.

If you’re setting up subcommittees for particular pieces of work, for example to explore a relocation or write a strategic plan, set out clear terms of reference and systems to monitor the work being done. This will help the subcommittee members understand their specific tasks.

Some of your trustees might be professionals such as solicitors or accountants and could offer to do work for the charity. If they or their firms do any paid work for your charity, you must follow the rules on trustee payments and conflicts of interest.

As trustees, you share responsibility for governing your charity regardless of whether individual trustees have specific roles. For example, your charity may have a treasurer but all the trustees are responsible for its assets and finances.

Review your trustee roles regularly to make sure the right people are doing the work.