29 Oct 2013
Neal Green responds to the trustee of a charity who wants advice on widening its scope.
I am a trustee of a charity that runs a day centre for local elderly people. I am the newest trustee and am keen to inject new thinking into the charity.
I suggested that we could also run a meals-on-wheels service for local elderly people who couldn’t get to the day centre. Our local Council was willing to provide funding, and it was clear that the service would cover its own costs. The other trustees were hesitant at first, but we discussed it and decided to run the scheme on a trial basis. It has been a runaway success.
Recently the Council asked if we could extend the scheme to cover other housebound individuals. I am keen to pursue this. I am also looking into other services that the Council are contracting out, as I think we can generate funds to maintain the day centre. The other trustees are adamant that this is outside our mission, but surely a charity should update itself to meet current needs.
The only trustee with a vision for the future
You raise some key issues, and are spot-on about the importance of having a vision for the future to ensure the charity stays ‘current’.
But you’re not a free agent here and the other trustees are telling you something you need to know. First start with the objects or purpose in the charity’s governing document. If the stated purpose of the charity is solely to provide a day centre for the elderly, you might already be operating outside that purpose ‘in breach of trust’ – despite the best of motives. The objects may be wider than this, but may be restricted to people over a specific age, in which case the charity can’t extend its meals on wheels service, or take on other services, for the benefit of other groups of people.
Charities’ objects can be written in ‘legal’ language and it might be helpful to draw up a ‘mission statement’, explaining clearly why the charity exists, who it’s there to help, and the goals it aims to achieve. This description must follow the objects, but can help a charity stay focused. Loss of this focus is commonly called ‘mission drift’.
A charity’s mission should be kept up to date, and even the objects can be updated if necessary. Getting the wording of any change of objects right is essential, and most charities can’t alter their objects without authorisation from the Charity Commission, so I very strongly recommend that you get advice from us if the charity is considering this. There usually have to be very good reasons for taking on a completely different set of beneficiaries.
Be clear about why the charity is taking on a new project or activity. How will it further the objects and mission? If it’s just to raise money then you may need advice about trading and the restrictions that apply.
If you do discover that the charity is operating outside its objects, it cannot carry on as it is. It is best to ‘own up’ rather than ‘cover up’, so we can help put the situation right.
Neal Green is a senior policy advisor of the Charity Commission
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