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Volunteering could come with hidden costs

Legal question time with Gardner Leader

John Herring



01635 886633

Volunteering could come with hidden costs

WE are fast becoming a nation of volunteers.

There are more than 170,000 UK charitable organisations, from large household-name charities to small organisations employing just a few people.

There are many opportunities for us all to get involved and give our valuable time.

One recent study found that 25 per cent of us volunteer at least once a month and four out of 10 people volunteer at least once a year.

There are an estimated 950,000 trustee positions in the UK, so there are plenty of diverse and interesting opportunities for us all to act as a trustees.

There has been a rise in the number of people (not least from the business sector) with diverse backgrounds and experience wanting to become trustees.

Though positive, before taking the plunge, sage advice is needed, for many responsibilities rest on the shoulders of a trustee.

New trustees need to be aware that funding is often the biggest short-term challenge. Local government cutbacks continue to impact on what small charities can do and what is asked of them, and running costs rarely go down.

The legal bit

Trustees are ultimately responsible for everything a charity does and can be held legally accountable for the decisions they make.

Though rare for an individual trustee to be singled out, given that most (if not all) decisions are collectively made by a board, each trustee should pay close attention to their convictions and take an active role in the decision-making process. Consequently, there is a need for people to understand the risks and liabilities involved in trusteeship and to undertake due diligence and research into an organisation before they accept a role.

The interview stage is crucial – it is the opportunity for candidates to get the information and answers they need to ensure they are making the right decision.

Before accepting a role

1. Seek clarity on your role, responsibilities and involvement in decision-making.

2. What is the leadership style and is there a good relationship between the chief executive and the board?

3. Take a look at the charity’s annual report to find out the strategic aims and objectives.

4. What are the charity’s resources (both financial and personnel)?

5. Is there a training and induction process for new trustees and what does it cover?

6. Ensure you see the governance document containing rules for trustees as it is your duty to comply with these rules and you may be held responsible if you do not.

7. What time commitment is required from you?

8. In given circumstances (eg crisis or urgent need) trustees have a duty to put the charity before other commitments. Can you do that and do other board members show this level of commitment?

9. Understand who the beneficiaries of the charity are – this is where the organisation’s loyalty lies.

10. Be open to challenging collective board decisions that are made. If you do not agree with a decision, register your dissent. Read the minutes of meetings you cannot attend and ensure you have your say – it is your duty and responsibility.

There are some huge benefits and rewards in being a trustee and for many people it can be a life-changing experience or the route to new career path. People involved in business have so much experience to draw upon and can make such a difference to the health of a charity. I would however sound one small note of caution to any new trustee – do your homework and be aware of the challenges and opportunities first before taking on a trusteeship.

By Alastair Goggins, partner and head of dispute resolution at Gardner Leader solicitors in Newbury, Thatcham and Maidenhead. Follow @GardnerLeader or contact (01635) 508080,

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