Becoming a leader in the not-for-profit sector

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Background

Dudley CVS has been supporting Dudley borough’s not-for-profits for the last 50 years, providing help and guidance to build their effectiveness and resilience. A topic we’ve supported not-for-profits with in particular is ‘governance’, which is the leadership given to not-for-profits by the people responsible for them – their directors, committees, boards or trustees.

Leaders of not-for-profit organisations are often unseen, but they fulfil a crucial role as the people entrusted with stewarding the organisation.

The not-for-profit sector needs people in the governance role to survive and we have a challenge:

  • There’s a shortage of charity trustees and other sector leaders, which is reflected nationally
  • Leadership is ageing, which could have a stagnating effect on not-for-profit organisations
  • There’s not a great deal of diversity at board level, in many ways. There is evidence to suggest that leaders are recruited informally, from a narrow pool of potential candidates leaving out other potential cohorts with different backgrounds, skills and experiences left out. Often, leaders split their time between more than one not-for-profit, which spreads them thinly.
In Dudley borough, a partnership of not-for-profit organisations and public sector agencies has formed to address these challenges. Our public sector partners want to encourage their staff to consider trusteeship or not-for-profit leadership and we want to support with this by offering training and support to potential new trustees, preparing not-for-profits for best practice trustee recruitment and brokering new trustee opportunities.

You have probably landed on this page because you are interested in learning more about leadership in the not-for-profit sector. Welcome! This page has been devised by the partnership to help you get started on your journey. You’ll find an FAQ developed from questions asked by colleagues in health and the local authority for whom leadership in our sector is totally new. You’ll find links to training and further information and you'll also find out more about how the process of becoming a trustee will work. We’re looking forward to having you on board!

GET IN TOUCH

A note on language:

There's more than one type of not-for-profit and their leaders (governing bodies) are known by different terminology. This table explains the basic distinctions:

Type of not-for-profit

Governing body name

Charity

Trustees

Non-charity which is a company (eg. company limited by guarantee, community interest company

Directors

Unregistered community group / voluntary organisation

Committee / steering group

On this webpage, we refer to charities and charity trustees as a cover-all term for any not-for-profit organisation and its leadership.

FAQs

1. What is a not-for-profit?

Charities, social enterprises, voluntary groups, voluntary sector organisations, community amateur sports clubs, faith groups, peer support groups, residents associations, faith organisations – these are all examples of not-for-profit organisations. Sometimes these organisations are called the voluntary (and community (and faith) (and social enterprise)) sector. Sometimes they are called the ‘third sector’.

‘Not-for-profit’ is the umbrella term that we use to denote organisations that are set up and run to benefit society in some way. They are purpose-driven organisations that have key principles ‘baked in’, such as:

  • They have a purpose or a mission, usually to support, help or benefit a community
  • They are not-for-profit – this really means they are not allowed to distribute profits to members or shareholders, as a profit-distributing company would. Not-for-profits can raise money in a variety of ways and making a surplus (or profit!) is encouraged. Any money a not-for-profit raises must be spent on achieving its purpose

Not-for-profits are independent of the state and run in the interests of the beneficiaries they serve (the community they are set up to support). They are governed by a ‘governing body’, elected, appointed (or a combination of both) to give them strategic direction.

To find out more about the not-for-profit sector in Dudley borough, join one of our quarterly ‘Welcome to the sector’ sessions.

2. What is the role of a trustee?

Trustees are the people responsible for charities. Their role is to steward and govern their charity with their co-trustees to the best of their ability to ensure that the charity’s purposes are properly pursued.

Trustees are the people ultimately responsible and accountable for the charity, its work, resources and reputation. It is the responsibility of trustees to make collective decisions in the best interests of the charity around issues such as its direction, strategy, finances and policies.

Charity trustees often have terms of office, usually ranging from one to three years, but that can vary and will be within each charity’s rules.

A charity needs a minimum number of trustees to operate legally (commonly this is three, but in some cases could be more depending on the charity’s rules). A charity also needs its meetings to be ‘quorate’. This means a minimum number of trustees need to be present at trustee meetings for valid decisions to be made at them. The ‘quorum’ is specified in the charity’s rules. If a meeting is ‘inquorate’ it means there are not enough trustees present for the meeting to go ahead. This is because decisions that trustees make should always be collective.

You may know trustees by other names, such as committee, board of directors. Regardless of the name, the responsibility is the same.

3. Is it a paid role?

Generally speaking, the role of trustee is almost always unpaid. Some non-charities may choose to pay their leaders, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Many not-for-profits do reimburse their trustees for out-of-pocket expenses incurred while carrying out the role. This will depend on the individual not-for-profit and its budgetary constraints, so we recommend finding out if the organisation will cover expenses before you commit.

4. How much time do I need to commit?

This depends on the nature and size of the charity and the number of staff and trustees it already has.

At the very least, you will be expected to prepare for and attend trustee meetings. In many charities, these meetings are quarterly and last under 3 hours, though some will meet more regularly than that.

Trustees with an officer role (such as chair, secretary etc.) will give a greater time commitment between meetings and will usually have more contact with the charity.

You may also be given the option to sit on any of the charity’s sub-committees, if they have any. These could be longer-term sub-committees that address topics like staffing and finance or shorter-term sub-committees that focus on a specific piece of work.

You have the right to ask the specific charity what level of commitment is expected before you sign up as a trustee and we will encourage charities we work with to be clear about the level of commitment they seek.

5. What support is there for trustees? Would I be able to receive training?

Support for trustees can come from a variety of sources, both formal and informal. Currently the most common avenue of support comes from other trustees. A charity with a good, formal induction process is likely to offer continuous support from its trustees too.

But it’s also worth looking outside of the charity itself for further support. Organisations like Dudley CVS can provide guidance, training and support to boards of trustees free of charge and the Charity Commission is a great source of information for new and established trustees.

If you complete an expression of interest form below we will invite you to our training on the roles and duties of trustees.

NCVO, The Association of Chairs, Getting on Board and ICAEW provide guidance, training and support to trustees too. On the more formal side of things, the Chartered Governance Institute UK and Ireland offers leadership qualifications, though a qualification is not necessary to become a trustee.

In some circumstances, a charity’s trustees may need specific advice. This might include legal advice on things like employment or purchasing property or financial advice. A charity can pay for professional advice when it requires it.

6. What are the benefits of being a trustee?

Being a trustee can bring a range of benefits, including:

  • Development of new skills and strengthening of existing skills
  • Sense of giving something back
  • Exposure to new and different perspectives
  • Connection around a cause
  • Increased networks and connections
  • Greater understanding of the diversity and breadth of the not-for-profit sector and how it works
  • Improved understanding of the issues and challenges the sector faces
  • Improved insights which could improve your professional development

Greater awareness of societal issues.

7. What skills do you need to be a trustee? Does a trustee need to have an area of expertise?

The skills you already have will be a great start! A strong board of trustees should draw on a mix of skills, experiences and qualities. Useful skills and knowledge could include:

  • Legal or financial knowledge
  • HR skills
  • Team-working, group dynamics
  • Lived experience around a charity’s causes
  • The ability to see the big picture and think strategically
  • The ability to ask the right questions, offer constructive challenge and give direction
  • Good networks that may benefit the charity

The trustee role is always collective, so you should not be expected to know and do everything. It’s a team effort and trustee boards make better decisions in the best interests of their charity when they have a mix of skills and perspectives.

We will support charities to carry out a skills audit of their current board of trustees so that they can be clear about the skills they are looking for.

8. Do I need to provide referees to be a trustee? How do I apply to be a trustee? How can I register my interest?

You do not usually need to provide references in order to become a trustee, though that will depend on each charity’s approach to trustee recruitment.

To register your interest in becoming a charity trustee and to be matched with Dudley borough charities seeking trustees, complete the expression of interest form at the bottom of this page. The form will ask you about your interests and skills so that we can match you with the most appropriate charity/ies.

You will also be offered opportunities to attend networking and training sessions to help you prepare for the trustee role. These will include:

  • Welcome to the sector – which will give you a basic introduction to the not-for-profit sector and the types of organisations as well as charities that make up the sector. These sessions are offered quarterly. Click the link to find out when the next one will be held.
  • Introduction to charities. This session will be organised and offered to everyone who returns an expression of interest.
  • Roles and responsibilities of trustees. This session will be organised and offered to everyone who returns an expression of interest.

Each charity will have its own procedure for recruiting trustees, ranging from a formal application to a less formal chat with the charity. This will depend on the size and resources of the charity and on the type of work the charity does. For instance, a charity whose trustees interact with vulnerable groups may need to DBS check their trustees. We will support charities to develop appropriate application processes that reflect their size and work.

There are certain people disqualified from acting as a charity trustee, and it is a criminal offence to act as one while disqualified. People disqualified from being a charity trustee include those who are undischarged bankrupt or people with an IVA to settle debts, those who have been convicted of crimes of dishonesty such as fraud, people convicted of financial crimes and those convicted of particular terrorism-related offences and those who have been convicted of misconduct in a public office. For the full list, visit the rules on disqualification here. When you register your interest, we will ask you whether you think you are disqualified from acting as a trustee and we will encourage charities to ask you to declare that you are not disqualified when you apply to them.

9. What if I decide it’s not for me?

Being a charity trustee may not suit everyone. On the other hand, there are so many charities out there that there is bound to be one that’s a good fit for you and your passions.

We recommend finding out as much as you can about being a trustee in general and about the charity you’re interested in joining before you make the commitment. This might include attending a couple of trustee meetings as a visitor, if that’s appropriate. We will encourage the charities we work with to provide you with information and opportunities to learn as much about them as possible before you commit.

Charity trustees often have terms of office, usually ranging from one to three years. You can resign or retire at any time but do bear in mind the effect this could have on the charity, particularly if your resignation might mean that the board of trustees is left ‘inquorate’.

Finally, there are other ways you could support not-for-profit organisations and charities, from volunteering with them, offering them help on a one-off basis, sharing their work or donating to them. Have a chat with our group development team who can link you with causes you’re interested in.

10. Does a trustee have a ‘contract’ or an ‘agreement’?

It is uncommon for trustees to have a contract or an agreement, but this doesn’t mean that trustees should not adhere to a set of standards and requirements when acting as a trustee.

Charity trustees have legal duties under charity law to govern their charity in its best interests and in good faith. They must:

  • Comply with the charity’s rules (governing document)
  • Comply with charity law requirements and any other laws that apply to the charity
  • Act in the best interests of the charity without being led by external interests or agendas, including personal interests
  • Manage the charity’s resources responsibly
  • Act with reasonable care and skill
  • Ensure the charity is accountable

The Charity Commission is the regulator for all charities in England and Wales. It has powers to investigate and intervene in the management of charities if any concerns arise.

In addition, all charities will have a set of rules (or governing document) which lays down ow the charity should operate. This is the charity’s manual and trustees must follow its rules.

Case studies

Stories from NHS staff who are already charity trustees.
Find out more about why the role is important to them
and what they get out of it.

Tracy and Paul

Interested? Get in touch

If you're interested in becoming a valued leader of a local charity or not-for-profit and would like to receive training, support and information about the types of organisations looking for leaders, please complete the expression of interest form below: 

If you need support to complete the form please email dale@dudleycvs.org.uk