Posted: 15 / 11 / 2023

Article by: Emma Houghton, Head of London Charity and Compliance


Understanding what trustees do and the role of a Board tends to be proportionate to the seniority of staff within a charity. While senior staff are acutely aware of how a Board works and its remit, junior staff often know of them in a relatively abstract sense; a group with a certain gravitas that has never really been explained.

This is rarely considered a problem, and familiarising staff with both what a Board does and who the trustees are isn’t generally treated as a priority. However, this creates both risks and opportunities.

As the former, a lack of understanding around the Board and the perception that only senior staff should have a relationship with them makes them unapproachable. The knock-on effect of this on the likelihood of whistleblowing is obvious, and trustees should be suspicious of senior teams that encourage a distance between them and staff. Conversely, trustees should also recognise the benefits of having staff understand what they do and proactively encourage more open communication.  Staff who are not directly answerable to the Board will present a more rounded representation of the organisation and its culture, insights that are clearly helpful when making decisions about policies and procedures.

What should staff know?

Trustees play a key role in the effective running of charities. Trustees are unpaid volunteers who go through a competitive recruitment process and are appointed on the basis of a certain skillset conducive to the charity’s founding objectives. This could be in a broad range of areas, for example, finance, communications, or marketing.

Collectively, the Board are responsible for providing strategic guidance and challenge, legal scrutiny, and making the most senior appointments. The Board is responsible for ensuring the charity operates in line with Charity Commission guidance and regulations around finance, governance, risk, and reporting. Trustees are liable to large fines and even prison should they fail to meet these obligations, so it’s in their interests to be understood and trusted by staff.

Trustees are not responsible for the day-to-day running of the charity. While trustees might offer guidance and support should it be requested, they shouldn’t impose their views or try to influence operations on a non-general basis. The only exceptions to this are when something arises that poses a significant legal or reputational risk or as part of an established procedure, such as the escalation of a grievance process.

Building a relationship

Making trustees more approachable is easy. Just a few ideas include:

  • Holding regular events where one or more trustees take turns to talk about either the role they play in the organisation or their fields of expertise.
  • Consider having more junior staff at Board meetings in discussions closed from senior staff.
  • Make sure the lines of communication between staff and trustees are clear and easy and that the Whistleblowing policy is widely understood.

Of course, some trustees will worry about staff becoming over-familiar and either blurring the line between the role of senior management and the Board or simply becoming a nuisance. But managed properly, the relationship has the potential to work not only in the interests of both, but the greater good of the charity.