How much information do trustees really need?

How much information do trustees really need?

How much information do trustees really need?1

Governance | Martin Farrell | 30 Apr 2012

Following a visit to the theatre Martin Farrell ponders how much information trustees need to have. 

‘Mummy what’s happening?’ The child’s incredulous voice filled the vast dark theatre space. All we could see were coloured shapes of light moving gracefully in the blackness, apparently of their own volition. The child had spoken for everyone.

Only when the final curtain went up, was the illusion revealed by actors clothed in black who had disappeared in the darkness, leaving visible only the balls of light they were carrying.

We spend much of our time not knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. We know we have engaged skilled performers who are working well together and are content to focus on the outcomes of their efforts. Quite right too.

So far so good – except that in the theatre, I was not responsible for the quality of the production. But around the board table I am – and that can make me nervous. And that nervousness can drive me to make too many demands for information to reassure myself that everything is working well.

One of the case studies at this year’s Trustee Exchange conference focused on a well-run charity in which a new and keen trustee was asking for ever more information, placing an increasing burden on senior staff. This culminated in strongly-worded letters flying about and upset all round. Oh dear.

So when is enough information enough? The very helpful and authoritative The rights of charity trustees to information concerning their charity paper by the Charity Law Association lays out the law on the matter – which broadly is that trustees have the right to receive the information which they reasonably need to govern the organisation. But (and this is an important ‘but’) this right is not absolute. It is constrained in several ways:

  • it relates only to information which trustees need to discharge their duties, not for other purposes;
  • trustees do not have a right to information which is properly considered to be confidential or if it is subject to data protection;

If you are so inclined you can study the detail in the full paper. While you do so, have in mind some good old-fashioned common sense.

  • Providing and collating information costs time, effort and money so that everything you ask for has a price tag attached. Do you really believe that the benefit to the organisation of having the information will be more than the cost of getting it?
  • What does your asking for information say about the balance you want to strike between the board thinking long-term and broadly (strategy) and the executive getting stuff done (operations)? Are you sure you are only asking for information which you need to fulfil your role as strategists?
  • Are the leading trustees being effective leaders, helping the board to handle the uncertainty which inevitably accompanies trusteeship?
  • Do the board and executive have a shared and explicit understanding about how much information is provided, when and how?

The child was moved to wonder at what she saw. Let us too allow ourselves to be so moved – and only ask for information about what’s going on behind the scenes when we’re sure we really need it.

Martin Farrell is the chairman of Read International  


Director of Services
Reach Skilled Volunteering
2 May 2012

I'd very much agree with these well judged comments. In particular, we find that many trustees can find it difficult not to stray into operational matters, and that too much information can tempt them further down this road.
On the other hand, engaged trustees with a holistic understanding of their charity, are crucial for good governance. Perhaps the way to go is exploring a more creative range of ways for trustees to learn about their charity and its performance, perhaps including the occasional away day or event which put trustees in direct contact with the charity's work....


[Cancel] | Reply to:

Close »

Community Standards

The community and comments board is intended as a platform for informed and civilised debate.

We hope to encourage a broad range of views, however, there are standards that we expect commentators to uphold. We reserve the right to delete or amend any comments that do not adhere to these standards.

We welcome:

  • Robust but respectful debate
  • Strongly held opinions
  • Intelligent relevant discussion
  • The sharing of relevant experiences
  • New participants

We will not publish:

  • Rude, threatening, offensive, obscene or abusive language, or links to such material
  • Links to commercial organisations or spam postings. The comments board is not an advertising platform
  • The posting of contact details for yourself or others
  • Comments intended for malicious purpose or mindless abuse
  • Comments purporting to be from another person or organisation under false pretences
  • Gratuitous criticism, commentary or self-promotion
  • Any material which breaches copyright or privacy laws, or could be considered libellous
  • The use of the comments board for the pursuit or extension of personal disputes

Be aware:

  • Views expressed on the comments board are left at users’ discretion and are in no way views held or supported by Civil Society Media
  • Comments left by others may not be accurate, do not rely on them as fact
  • You may be misunderstood - sarcasm and humour can easily be taken out of context, try to be clear


  • Enjoy the opportunity to express your opinion and respect the right of others to express theirs
  • Confine your remarks to issues rather than personalities

Together we can keep our community a polite, respectful and intelligent platform for discussion.


Martin Farrell

30 years ago Martin Farrell volunteered to help a handcraft charity in South Africa and to do church based youth work in a rough estate in Manchester.  Today he runs a consultancy.

Tesse Akpeki (55) Martin Farrell (46) Robert Ashton (38) Tania Mason (23) Andrew Chaggar (23) David Ainsworth (20) David Philpott (14) Making Good: The Future of the Voluntary Sector (13) Vibeka Mair (11) Ian Allsop (11)
Niki May Young (11) Dorothy Dalton (10) Kirsty Weakley (10) Leon Ward (10) Celina Ribeiro (9) Gordon Hunter (9) David Davison (8) John Tate (8) Neal Green (5) Jeremy Swain (5) Rowena Lewis (5) Andrew Hind CB (4) Daniel Phelan (4) Belinda Pratten (4) Suzi Leather (3) Stephen Lloyd (3) Pauline Broomhead (3) Rosie Chapman (3) Andrew Purkis (3) Ingrid Marson (3) Alexander Swallow (3) Alice Sharman (3) Sir Stuart Etherington (2) Adrian Beney (2) Joe Saxton (2) Jesper Christensen (2) Paul Gibson (2) Andrew Scadding (2) Anne Moynihan (2) Rosamund McCarthy (2) Kevin Carey (2) Garreth Spillane (2) June O'Sullivan (2) Dan Corry (2) Paul Emery (2) Simon Steeden (2) Andrew O'Brien (2) Lesley-Anne Alexander CBE (1) Victoria Cook (1) Claris D'cruz (1) Peter Gotham (1) Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallett (1) Justin Davis Smith (1) Kate Sayer (1) Alison McKenna (1) Paul Palmer (1) Anne-Marie Piper (1) Jo Swinhoe (1) Karl Wilding (1) Richard Williams (1) Mike Hudson (1) Sir Christopher Kelly (1) Martin Brookes (1) Simon Hebditch (1) Lindsay Driscoll (1) Jo Coleman (1) Cedric Frederick (1) Jonathan Lewis (1) Dame Mary Marsh (1) Jill Pitkeathley (1) Nick Brooks (1) Linda Laurance (1) Suzie Who (1) James Thompson (1) Stephen Hammersley (1) John May (1) Julian Blake (1) Malcolm Hurlston (1) Andy Gregg (1) Beth Yorath (1) Paul Amadi (1) Caroline Beaumont (1) Judith Davey (1) Diane Lightfoot (1) Douglas Rouse (1) Jackie Turpin (1) Lynda Thomas (1) Tom Flood (1) Dan Sutch (1) Jenni Cahill (1) Jonathan Crown (1) Ruchir Shah (1) Katy Wing (1) George Ames (1) Jenny North (1) Sir David Varney (1) Liam Barrington-Bush (1) Mairéad O'Reilly (1) Tobin Aldrich (1) Michael O'Toole (1) Lisa Clavering (1) Jamie Ward-Smith (1) Ian Joseph (1) Sarah Atkinson (1) Jonathan Bruck (1) Rachel Short (1) Dr Debra Beck (1) Andy Rich (1) Ian Leggett (1) Leigh Daynes (1) Tim Willis (1) Richard Caulfield (1) Emma Callagher (1)
Less +++ More +++

The long and unhappy saga of the Local Sustainability Fund

29 Jun 2015

Last week the government announced a £20m pot of funding for charities. This sounds like good news, says...

Government can't ask charities to compete for contracts while savaging council spending

15 Jun 2015

The government cannot tell charities they must compete for contracts in a market while slashing the spending...

'Northern Powerhouse'? Almost as clearly defined as the big society

4 Jun 2015

Ian Allsop talks tomatoes and why charities should look north for income growth opportunities under the...

Join the discussion


Attending our one day courses is a highly effective way of ensuring new and existing trustees fully understand their role, responsibilities and liabilities.

>> Find out more <<