The role of the trustee - Museums Association

The role of the trustee

New guidance from the Charity Commission
Neal Green
Museums have to be many things – educational, inspiring and innovative.

Like many other artistic, cultural and educational institutions, museums are often charities. But charitable status may not be a visible part of their identity. For example, as a newly qualified archaeologist I worked for a museum, but I had no idea it was a charity.

It’s vital that the board and management team of a charitable museum understand what being a charity means, and how charity law and trustees’ duties play out day-to-day.

The Charity Commission has recently updated The Essential Trustee, its core guidance for charity trustees. If you need to brush up on trustees’ duties, this is the place to start.

The new version explains the role of trustees as six key duties. For each duty, it explains the legal requirements that all trustees must meet, and the good practice that it’s vital to follow.

Trustees’ duties at a glance:

  • Ensure your charity is carrying out its purposes for the public benefit.
  • Comply with your charity’s governing document and the law.
  • Act in your charity’s best interests.
  • Manage your charity’s resources responsibly.
  • Act with reasonable care and skill.
  • Ensure your charity is accountable

One of the big changes in the new version is clarifying that good practice isn’t optional. Some trustees feel it is okay to opt out of good practice with little regard to the consequences, so we are emphasising that “should” means “really should”.

Good practice underpins compliance with legal duties, supports effectiveness and helps charities to avoid common governance errors. In some cases, such as having sufficient financial controls or risk assessment, you will be unable to comply with your legal duty unless you follow good practice.

But when it comes to good practice, one size does not fit all. It’s important to be able to apply good practice to your charity’s particular circumstances, and to be able to explain the rationale for the approach your charity takes.

The new guidance has a stronger focus on ensuring that your charity carries out its purposes.

Trustees’ duties aren’t abstract concepts, removed from the work of the charity; they should be part of how your charity works. It’s important to understand how all of your charity’s activities further its aims, and how effective they are in doing so. Otherwise there is a risk of just doing what you’ve always done, or being driven by funding opportunities and risking drifting away from your charity’s core purpose.

We tested the new approach by consulting charities and their advisors, to see if it achieved what we wanted. Overall, the response was very positive.

One finding from that consultation was that the commission needed to reassure and support trustees, the vast majority of whom are unpaid volunteers. They aren’t expected to be perfect, but they are expected to do their best.

Charity law generally protects trustees who have made genuine mistakes – providing they have acted honestly and reasonably.

The new guide includes examples and case studies, drawn from our experience, which should help trustees to avoid some of the more common mistakes. When things go seriously wrong in a charity it’s often because of weaknesses in governance such as trustees not understanding their role, inadequate financial controls, lack of clarity about the charity’s aims, or a dominant individual who is able to exert control.

So we recommend basic safeguards such as making sure you understand the charity’s governing document (its constitution, trust deed, articles or whatever formal document it has). It is also vital to recognise and deal with conflicts of interest.

Another important safeguard is to rely on appropriate financial controls and procedures rather than the honesty of individuals. For example, all trustees share responsibility for the finances, it’s not just up to the treasurer. This means trustees need to understand the information they are given and, if necessary, question it.

One of the main aims of updating The Essential Trustee was to provide clear, up-to-date guidance that gives trustees the clarity and confidence they need to carry out their role.

Neal Green is the senior policy advisor at the Charity Commission


Trustee guidance from the Charity Commission

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