News story: The essential trustee: new guidance on trustees’ responsibilities

The title may be familiar to trustees, but the explanation of their responsibilities and what the regulator expects have been completely updated to make this guidance easier to understand and apply.

When the Charity Commission consulted on the draft version last autumn, most people who responded found it helpful and preferred it to the previous version, but a significant minority felt it needed a more supportive tone.The commission has listened to this feedback and feel it’s achieved the right balance in making it clearer to trustees what the law expects of them. Being a trustee is a serious responsibility, but it doesn’t have to be daunting, if you are armed with the right knowledge and understand your duties. This is what CC3 is about.

The updated ‘Essential trustee’ breaks down the trustee’s role into 6 clear duties:

  • 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

Under each heading, the commission explains the legal requirements that trustees must meet, and the good practice they need to follow, to operate effectively and comply with their duties. From there, you can go to more detailed guidance if you need an in-depth understanding. For example, there are links to guidance on fundraising, making better decisions and reducing the risk of liability. The commission also provides a summary guide if you want the headlines at a glance.

Even if you have been a trustee for years, you will still benefit from looking at the new guidance and brushing up on your legal duties and essential good practice. The commission makes it clearer that trustees are expected to follow good practice, applying it appropriately to their charity’s circumstances. It’s not an optional extra.

Time and again, the commission finds that serious concerns about a charity have their root causes in weak governance. It manifests itself as failure in at least one of the trustees’ 6 key duties. All too often trustees have failed to comply with their governing document, deal with conflicts of interest, or implement sufficient procedures and controls. It creates opportunities for serious wrongdoing such as fraud or abuse of beneficiaries. The new guidance highlights and gives practical examples of how to avoid some common pitfalls, for example by ensuring you understand your governing document, asking questions and ensuring you understand your charity’s finances. So you can feel confident that you’re running your charity in a legal, accountable and effective way.

This isn’t just about keeping in the commission’s good books. It’s essential if you want to be more effective at meeting your beneficiaries’ needs, and enhance your credibility with potential funders, supporters and the wider public.

The charity sector and the commission are under increasing scrutiny from the public, media and government. The new ‘Essential trustee’ should help you to be confident about fulfilling your responsibilities as a trustee. It’s designed to help you make decisions as a team of trustees, so that you never have to feel like you’re on your own, or just muddling through. But for those trustees who don’t take their legal duties seriously enough, it’s the standard that they will be measured against.

Rewriting CC3 has been a major piece of work, but has been worth it to produce a clearer, shorter guidance that gives the right level of detail. The commission wants to help you get it right, and enjoy the valuable and rewarding work that being a trustee brings.

Many charities, umbrella bodies, professional advisers and individual trustees have contributed to developing this guidance. Thank you for your help. The next challenge is to communicate its message as widely as possible. Charities recognised this in making many suggestions and offers of help in response to the consultation, which the commission plans to follow up. If you are a trustee you have a vital role too – not only in reading it yourself but in sharing it with your co-trustees.

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