A Trustee Policy: Why having one is essential to your charity’s success

Being a Trustee is challenging. Whether at a large or small charity, your official responsibilities are the same. In practice, the role varies enormously.

Each charity also has a considerable breadth of choice about how its Board and Trustees carry out their duties. This uncertainty can make understanding how the Trustee role works for your charity even more difficult.

What your role as a Trustee is – and isn’t – can be a source of confusion, conflict and even chaos for a charity that hasn’t invested time in figuring this out.

Every charity’s governing document – whether its constitution, its articles or its deed – will set out key rules around issues such as recruitment, service lengths, expenses, conflicts of interest and meeting arrangements. Some will be more detailed than others. However, these documents are silent on much of the detail about how Board members undertake their role, and they can be difficult to read and understand, particularly if they are historical documents that don’t use plain English.

A Trustee Policy can clarify this confusion, including simple language that reflects the contents of your governing document, while also filling any gaps by providing guidance on how your charity sees the role of the Board and its Trustees.

A Trustee Policy should cover – at a minimum – the following elements:

  • Meeting arrangements
  • Appointment and recruitment of Trustees, including details around induction and training
  • Serious incidents
  • Risk management
  • Commitment of Trustees and Trustee Code of Conduct
  • Trustee plans and appraisals
  • Trustee training
  • Managing conflicts of interest
  • Delegations of authority to staff and the retained authority of Trustees
  • Managing conflict, and
  • Staff appraisals (if relevant).

Charities working on areas with additional responsibilities, such as child safeguarding, should also incorporate specific provisions about these areas into the policy.

A Trustee Policy must align with the governing document and Trustees’ legal obligations, and it should never be intended to override or take the place of these. However, it will build on and add detail to existing rules and procedures, providing clarity about how the Board operates and what the charity expects of its Trustees. This will enables the charity’s Trustees to agree on the way they will work together, resolves any confusion for both Trustees and staff about what Trustees do and don’t do, and provides prospective Trustees with clarity about the role they are being asked to undertake.

The policy should consider and answer questions such as:

  • How will your Board recruit new members? What avenues will it use, and what review techniques will be applied to potential candidates?
  • How will the Board assess its own quality and diversity, and how will it identify what skills and backgrounds it needs when recruiting new Board members?
  • Will your Board members be expected to deliver certain responsibilities throughout the year and be held up to those commitments through an annual appraisal?
  • How will your Board manage a serious incident if one arises?
  • What is the process that the Trustees will go through each year to identify and manage the risks facing the charity?
  • What training will be provided to Trustees and how is the need identified?
  • How will the Board delegate authority to staff, and how will it review and appraise key staff?
  • What level of time and expertise commitment does your charity expect of its Trustees?
  • What behavioural standards are required of your charity’s Trustees?
  • How will the Board manage conflict between key charity staff and individual Board members?

Charities will differ significantly on the responses to these questions, but answering them in a Trustee Policy ensures that your Trustees know exactly what they are committing to and can avoid damaging disagreements and errors down the line.

It is important to emphasise that the Trustee Policy doesn’t replace the governing document or the Trustees’ overall responsibilities as outlined in Charity Commission publications including The Essential Trustee. In accordance with their responsibilities, Trustees should also ensure that they remain up to date with legal changes relating to their responsibilities and the charity sector more broadly, and should ensure that they review the Trustee Policy regularly.

A Trustee Policy unites your charity under agreed values, principles and procedures, ensuring that everyone is on the same page. It provides not just a piece of paper, but a practical tool that has been developed through discussion and agreement on how your charity operates in practice, providing clarity and coherence for everyone concerned.