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It is essential for charities to build, develop and sustain a strong board of trustees to ensure that the charity has effective leadership and governance in place,  aligned with its aims and charitable objects.

Finding suitable trustees is often very challenging, particularly for smaller charities with more limited resources. Charities can struggle to identify interested individuals or appeal to a broader talent pool of potential trustees with different but complementary skill sets.

Many charities rely on word-of-mouth referrals which can lead to a lack of challenge and variety on the board. This can pose a key strategic risk in terms of the charity’s governance, performance and accountability.

Annual succession planning

Succession planning should be reviewed every year. The board should reflect on the knowledge, skills and experience of its current trustees and identify skills gaps and weaknesses (through a skills audit), along with training and development needs. Recruiting new trustees with specific skill sets or backgrounds can add strength to the board.

Top tips on legal and governance compliance

  • Understanding the governing document – the charity’s governing document may place limitations on the appointment of trustees. It is important to understand how the vacancy has arisen (i.e. through resignation/expiry of term, or a new appointment to address a skills or experience gap). The trustees must check if the charity’s governing document provides for a maximum number of trustees and if so whether the appointment would exceed that
  • Recruitment process – the governing document may also stipulate the process for the recruitment of charity trustees, including who is responsible for leading the process (the board or a sub-committee). Trustees should prepare a person specification with an overview of the charity, scope of the role and the likely time commitment. If specific skills or experience is needed, some thought should be given to how individuals with these attributes should be targeted, and the timing and duration of the advertisement. As well as promoting on the charity’s own website and social media accounts charities may want to consider using local or specialist publications, LinkedIn groups and trustee recruitment specialists
  • Trustee guidance –potential trustees need to be clear on what the role and duties of a charity trustee entails, and be clear on the aims, values and purposes of the charity. It is essential they are also aware of the difference between being a trustee and being a manager. This is usually discussed at the interview but we suggest that appropriate documentation is included with the charity’s recruitment pack. The Charity Commission’s recently updated Essential Trustee Guidance and an infographic which is a helpful summary of the key trustee duties
  • Background checks – prior to a new trustee appointment appropriate background checks must be made to verify the individual’s suitability and eligibility, including:
    • DBS checks (advisable for all trustees but particularly for charities working with children and/or vulnerable adults)
    • Ensuring the potential trustee is not disqualified from appointment (see the Charity Commission Guidance)
    • Undertaking appropriate searches of the official registers including individual insolvency (the Insolvency Service website), register of disqualified directors (via the register maintained by Companies House), and the register of persons removed as a charity trustee either by the Charity Commission or by an Order of the High Court since 1 Jan 1993
    • Considering any current appointments and/or potential conflicts of interest that new trustees may have and following up references. Charities should ensure that new trustees understand that they must always put the charity’s interests first when making decisions, and that they know how to identify conflicts of interest and make appropriate declarations of interest as appropriate
    • The charity should always ask new trustees to sign a declaration of eligibility. The Charity Commission has a template for use

What next?

All newly appointed charity trustees will receive the recently updated welcome pack from the Charity Commission which signposts key guidance and information regarding their role and duties.

Following the appointment of new trustees, charities should ensure they offer a comprehensive induction programme and specific training, particularly in relation to key aspects of the charity’s governance and activities.  This should be part of the planned recruitment process and include input from key board members and staff on matters such as strategy, and policies and procedures (including safeguarding and fundraising). Assigning a mentor to new trustees can be helpful. It’s also a good idea to actively seek feedback on the recruitment and appointment process, and implement suggestions.

Laurie Trounce is a Partner and head of the Charities Team. If you need advice reviewing the issues raised in this article or any issue please get in touch by telephone 01872 265100 or email