Being a new trustee
By Tom Green
In my experience the biggest challenge as a new trustee is the most obvious one: you are called upon to make important judgements about the strategy and finances of an organisation that you do not work for.
That, of course, is central to the role. You are independent. Your income or career does not depend on supporting any particular point of view. The problem is getting enough information to make a decision that can be called anything like informed.
When I become a trustee of Volunteer Centre Westminster (then called Westminster Volunteer Bureau) I was baffled by most of the papers that I received. Even though I thought I was familiar with the organisation and the work they did, the detail of accounts, fundraising updates and project reports was almost overwhelming. Despite a thorough induction and very helpful staff and fellow trustees, the first management committee meetings passed by in something of a blur.
The key thing if you find yourself in a similar position is to persevere – no one will mind you sitting quietly for the first few meetings. There is a lot to absorb and there should be enough people on the committee to mean that it won't matter if at first you are mostly just listening and observing.
Growing into the role
All being well, you will slowly get to know the organisation more closely. Membership of sub-committees can help, as can attendance at the organisation's events and functions. Slowly you will find yourself growing into the role and realising that you are getting to grips with the jargon, acronyms (aargh!) and how to read a balance sheet (double aargh!).
A lot can depend on the Chair of the trustees and their relationship with the chief executive. If they work well together and with the rest of the board, they will try to make it easy for you to contribute. Away days for trustees, with or without other staff and volunteers, can be a chance to immerse yourself in the issues being faced as well as enabling you to get to know the people you are working with.
Fellow trustees can be a great source of help, so ask for advice. Tell them if you have concerns, about your own role or anything to do with the organisation. There is a huge amount of information available online, too. See our introductory article for details.
Another way to learn about the organisation and feel more involved is to offer particular skills. It might be that the organisation recruited you as a trustee specifically because you had a certain kind of experience that they wanted on their board, but if your skills aren't known, offer to help with a particular project. In a small organisation in particular, expertise in areas such as marketing, IT or finance can be invaluable. It needn't be a huge extra commitment, a single session with the relevant member of staff or just the offer of help as and when it's needed.
The trustees' job is not to get involved with running the organisation on a day-to-day basis (although if you are Chair or, especially, Treasurer, you might feel that you are). To a certain extent you are supposed to be an outsider. Your independence is important. And sometimes the 'stupid' question asked by someone with a slight detachment is one that has been overlooked by everyone else.
So, if you become a trustee, never be afraid to ask if you don't understand something. Speak up if there is something you are unsure about. That, after all, is what you are there for.
Help for new trustees
Search the do-it.org.uk database for trustee opportunities in your local area.