Charity Commission meeting considers formal trustee training

Sam Younger, CEO, Charity Commission

Charity Commission meeting considers formal trustee training6

Governance | Jonathan Last | 25 May 2012

Attendees at the Charity Commission’s public meeting yesterday debated the merits of formal training for charity trustees.

The issue of improving the competency and standard of trustee boards emerged as a theme throughout the event.

“We want to increase trustee self-reliance,” the Commission's CEO Sam Younger said in his opening speech reviewing the Commission’s new three-year strategic plan.

“This is not just driven by financial pressures (though they are clearly also a factor) – when we did our public review, the feedback gave a strong sense that since trustees are the ones that set the strategy and make the decisions, it’s in the interest of the sector that we should make it easier for them to do things themselves.”

Michelle Russell, the Commission’s head of investigations and enforcement, cited online guidance for trustees as one part of the organisation’s ‘emphasising prevention’ approach to tackling fraud in the sector.

Trustee competence a 'huge issue'

But it was during the audience questions that concluded the meeting that the theme sprung to life in open discussion.

The speakers agreed that it is vital that trustees have the skills they need for their role. Charity Commission board member John Wood called it “a huge issue and difficulty, which the Commission is very aware of”. He first suggested that umbrella bodies have an important role to play in making sure that trustees know what they are taking on with the role and to provide training, and then added that the private sector can also help. “[It] could encourage employees to do pro bono work and take up trustee positions.”

Neil Gerrard, former MP for Walthamstow and current trustee of Waltham Forest CAB, was cynical about the idea of accrediting trustees. “Frankly, if you told people they had to go through an accreditation process to become a trustee, I think it would be quite off-putting.” He suggested that one useful form of non-compulsory training could be inviting potential trustees along to observe the current board.

Liz Hudson, of a CVS in Cheshire East, contended that trustee training is vital. But the biggest problem is being able to fund the programme.

Suzie Morley, chairman of trustees at Debenham Village Hall & Playing Field Trust, told the room of her personal experience of joining a charity and being left in a “scary position” where she had to deal with unscrupulous and absconding co-trustees. She made a success of the situation, but said that she would have benefited hugely from prior training. However, she stressed that such a process would need to be available to those who wanted it, instead of “rules saying that you have to have this training”.

Wrapping up the meeting, John Wood said that the Commission would "take the issue of trustee training away and give it some serious thought”.

Discussion elsewhere in sector

The issue of formal trustee accreditation was also raised at last week’s Charity Law Association conference, where an audience member asked whether there should be a professional charity trustee qualification. The panel, which included Debra Allcock Tyler, CEO of Directory of Social Change, was sceptical, Allcock Tyler herself saying that some of the best trustees she has advised wouldn’t pass such a qualification.

Civil Society Media offers training courses for chairs and trustees.  Click here for more details.

Tony Crouch
11 Jun 2012

The Pensions Regulator has tackled exactly the same issue of trustee competance by introducing Trustee Knowledge and Understanding (TKU) modules ( I have found these modules very useful and they do not seem to put off new trustees. This is the nearest an accreditation programme get without actually being an accreditation scheme!

28 May 2012

Being in a high management position, I agree that all Trustees should undertake training. Too often (and in my own charities case) Trustees are not taken on for what they know but who they know leading to a 'closed shop' scenario. If you do not make training for trustees compulsary, then you fail to address those Trustees who do not think they need any form of training and blunder on regardless playing Russian roulette with their employed staff's lives.

Janet Thorne
Director of Services
Reach Skilled Volunteering
28 May 2012

I'd agree that there is an urgent need for much more training for trustees - to help them deal with increasingly complex issues as suggested above, but also to clarify / reinforce understanding of what a good trustee / chair does.

One common issue is that boards tend to develop their own set of behaviours and expectations. Where the board is weak, this perpetuates poor performance, and training for new trustees is crucial to arrest this. However even good boards could benefit from new trustees bringing in fresh and up to date perspectives on good governance.

Compulsory training would be problematic, but charities could have an expectation that new trustees would attend training. After all, schools expect all governors to attend training (both inducation and specialist / update sessions). The key question is who will pay for this? Most smaller charities have no budget at all for governance...

Carl Allen
27 May 2012

Free formal obligatory training for specific trustee responsibilities must become the new norm.

Levels of training for impact of the same risks in different situations can be delivered pro-bono in person and by multi-media.

And who can name the trustee who will not willing undertake the right level of training?

Now let us consider the legal obligation of trustees as to competence when undertaking specific responsibilities!

25 May 2012

Formal, obligatory training for prospective trustees is a very dangerous idea with the potential to hamper development of communities and civil society as a whole. Let alone healthy activism.
Charities are not to deliver public services for cheaper price nor are they some form of public service. It's people's choice to get involved and this choice is one of the basic liberties: the freedom of association. Along with other liberties, such as freedom of speech or freedom of private live, this liberty has to be nurtured and protected. This is what makes Western world a liberal democracy and what attracts so many people here every day.
No condition must be put on becoming a trustee - once this is done one can as well take people's voting rights in general elections because their voice and 'good citizenship' is worth less than a grain of sand. Nobody would even think about literacy tests for voters these days but restraining trusteeship is somehow acceptable. Let it happen and there will be no freedom anymore.

Hilary Barnard
Principal Consultant
25 May 2012
Response to [Barbara]

I'm not in favour of compulsion directed towards Trustees in this way. However, I do think we have to get real about the need for much greater training resource (Liz Hudson is right), particularly for Chairs of Trustees, who are overseeing organisations that employ staff and are engaged in commissioning and procurement processes. Trustees need to understand, engage with and plan ahead how their organisations are involved in contracts and service level agreements, and the risks and opportunities involved (without being lost in the fine detail).

I agree that it is the people's choice whether they get involved but it is equally the charity's choice whether those people meet objective criteria for selection of its Trustees. In the process, we should ensure that there is training to help those with enthusiasm and commitment (but not all the skills and knowledge needed) to catch up and ensure a balanced and diverse Board.

It sounds very much as though this session at the Charity Commission rather lost its way. The concluding statement that the Commission would "take the issue of trustee training away and give it some serious thought” is incredibly vague.

Talk of Trustee self-reliance is all very well but it doesn't address the increasingly complex work that many Trustee Boards are being asked to take on.


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