The Charity Commission has said that trustees need more advice and guidance as a result of findings in new research it has published today.
Taken on Trust: The Awareness and Effectiveness of Charity Trustees in England & Wales, has been published today and found that most charity trustees rely on internal sources for guidance, with 90 per cent saying fellow board members were at least a moderately important source, and 74 per cent saying the chair was an important source.
The Charity Commission also scored highly: 89 per cent of trustees found its website important, and 81 per cent said its publications were important.
Almost half said that voluntary sector advice bodies, such as NCVO and other infrastructure organisations, were not important or not applicable to them. And more than half said that external publications and external training were not important or not applicable.
These kind of responses were fairly uniform across differently sized organisations, but was particularly stark amongst the very smallest charities, those with income's of under £10,000 a year.
The vast majority of these organisations had "no chief executive to look to for information and support" and no paid staff. It found that, despite having no professional staff to call on for expertise, trustees from these sized charities indicated that "external training courses appear underutilised".
The report notes "the lack of internal resource within these smallest charities presents both an opportunity and a challenge for professional advisors and voluntary sector umbrella bodies".
Only 12 per cent of trustees receive ‘formal training’
According to the report only 12 per cent of respondents said they had received “any kind of formal induction training associated with their recruitment to the charity”, while just 6 per cent reported “receiving guidance or training delivered by an external professional provider”.
Only a third of respondents “recall being furnished with a role or job description that outlined the principal duties and responsibilities” associated with the role when they were recruited to a board.
However, 70 per cent of respondents received “some form of guidance and support” as part of the recruitment process.
Charity Commission ‘by far most authoritative’ source for trustees
The report said that the Commission website and documents represented “by far the most authoritative sources of advice and support selected by trustees as important to them” and that this suggested the regulator needed to do more.
“These results therefore provide a clear focus and raison d’etre for the Charity Commission to further upgrade both the range of information and advice that it provides to trustees through these two mediums and to ensure that the advice proffered is properly tailored and accessible to different trustee audiences as might be required,” the report said.
Sarah Atkinson, director of policy, planning and communications at the Commission, acknowledged this need, but said it raised questions about resources, and also about communications.
“We need to understand who our regulated community are and how to reach them. It’s not enough to create the information. We need to get it into trustees’ hands.
“Also, this report shows we need an emphasis on behaviour, not knowledge. Trustees are saying they are getting the information, and now they need help to apply it.
“It’s clear that the regulator is the best place to gather and source information. This goes to resource and capacity, and we’re not shying away from that.”
She said the report also presented a question for sector support bodies.
NCVO and Cranfield report calls for ‘more digital support’ for trustees
A separate, "companion" report for charity trustees published by NCVO and the Cranfield Trust has called on support material for trustees to be “more digital” and for the format to be presented in “bitesized” pieces, for easier consumption.
It found that “trustees are uncomfortable with support in digital format and preferred face-to-face delivery” but argued this might be down to the fact that it could find “very little digital delivery” of support services. It also argued that it was “unlikely that voluntary sector providers will be able to meet existing demand, let alone any increase in demand, on a face-to-face model”.
It instead suggested that “larger, national providers such as universities” could provide digital support services for trustees through an “MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) approach” such as the Open University.
NCVO and Cranfield also recommend changing the formatting of support materials to make them more ‘bitesize’. “More emphasis on modularisation could be introduced to the current support offer, similar to the sorts of web based, short, modular training increasingly being adopted across the private and public sectors”.
Dan Francis, senior governance consultant at NCVO, said: "Our report does suggest that the Commission is uniquely well placed to communicate with trustees from all sized and shaped organisations, whether that's local community groups or big organisations. We just want to make sure that the Commission is using its data to prompt trustees, right from the outset, to learn about their responsibilities.
"The Commission's report shows that most trustees feel they are getting adequate support, and that's good. We just think that given the experience of providers, there's something there in terms of the Commission using their data to better prompt and signpost trustees to sources of existing support".