Charities need to ensure they have the right expertise at the table, an environment in which trustees can shine - and the training they need to do the job, writes Helen Kidd
There are an estimated 184,000 trustees supporting the 25,000-plus charities on the Scottish Charity Register. Every one of them brings their own life and professional experience to the role. Every one of them has a voice. How each of them uses that voice and experience really matters.
We are in the midst of Trustees’ Week. And its theme - Many voices. Working together. With purpose - strikes at the core of the collective mission of those who give their time to support our varied and vibrant third sector in making a difference to lives across the country. They help us to seize opportunities and overcome challenges.
When you think about it, the number of trustees across Scotland, as shared recently by charities regulator OSCR, is actually pretty amazing.
Having been a charity trustee myself, I have seen first-hand the individual talents, viewpoints and experiences each trustee brings to their board and, when embraced, how that supports good governance and collective decision-making.
This, however, does not come about by chance.
It starts with getting the right people around your board table. That means identifying the mixture of talents you need, any gaps you might have and the individuals who have the necessary skills and personal traits.
You then want to ensure there is an environment in which those skills make a positive difference. A chairperson with the right mindset, attitude and influence has a vital part to play, setting the tone for the board and how it operates. The best are those with the personality traits to get people together and move forward.
And, ultimately, the most effective trustees are those who understand what their role is and the responsibilities which come with it.
It is then that their individual voice, viewpoints and experiences can really come to the fore as part of a diverse group which, together, realises what it needs to do and makes a charity stronger.
The importance of training in unlocking this can be all too often overlooked in among the demands on trustees’ time.
But my experience of advising a range of organisations across Scotland - including through the Acosvo network - is that this is time well invested.
We ask a lot of our charity trustees with properly considered and recorded decisions about staffing, budgets, organisational strategy and crisis management being just some of them. Very few are experts in all of this, especially as organisations across the country work to encourage younger trustees to support the many long-experienced volunteers we are fortunate to have.
Good training, therefore, can ensure that they understand three pillars of good governance: record-keeping, communications and understanding your organisation.
If you get the basics right, positive things are more likely to follow, whether times are good or more challenging.
Research by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) recently highlighted that seven-in-10 third sector organisations (71%) reported facing financial challenges, with half (51%) saying rising costs were negatively impacting on their core services.
Truly appreciating the responsibilities of your role can help those considering the implications of those issues and many more. Indeed, it is about helping people to find their voice - and use it in the most effective way possible - in order to support and influence the cabinet responsibility which sits at the centre of governance in our third sector.
Trustees’ Week is a terrific chance to celebrate the achievements of our trustees and to thank them for all that they do. Their efforts make a remarkable difference to so many. It is also a great point to highlight the support which is out there for them.
I occasionally wonder how many of those 184,000 trustees supporting Scottish charities feel properly equipped to do all that’s asked of them - or, indeed, whether greater numbers of people would come forward or commit to roles for longer if they realised the support networks available to them? Their tremendous work could perhaps become even more impactful with a little training.
Helen Kidd is partner and head of the Charities and Third Sector team at legal firm Lindsays.