UK: Charities - Getting The Right Mix

Last Updated: 18 July 2012
Article by Fiona Reid

Trustees are responsible for controlling the management and administration of charities and therefore carry out a vital role. It is important that the trustees have an appropriate mix of skills and experience. However, since trustees cannot be remunerated for the execution of this role it can sometimes be difficult for organisations to attract suitable candidates.

What is a 'strong board'?

The Charity Commission considers a 'strong board' to be one of the hallmarks of an effective charity. Its guidance states that a charity should demonstrate this by:

  • ensuring that the board is constituted in accordance with the charity's governing document
  • identifying the mix of skills, knowledge and experience necessary for that particular charity
  • ensuring that recruitment of trustees allows for achievement of the necessary mix
  • having the optimum number of trustees – enough to have a range of skills but not so many that decisionmaking becomes difficult
  • having a clear understanding of the roles of trustees and staff
  • having clear terms of reference for Committees
  • ensuring that trustees are appropriately vetted (for example, if necessary, CRB checks)
  • having suitable induction and training Plans
  • having a framework for evaluating the board's performance
  • ensuring that trustees have a good understanding of their duties, in particular that they must act only in the charity's best interests
  • having a conflicts of interest policy
  • identifying and complying with relevant legislation and seeking professional advice when required.

What is an appropriate skills mix?

Deciding upon an appropriate skills mix can be difficult, especially for a small charity aiming to have a relatively small trustee board. In addition to having appropriate skills, potential trustees should be enthusiastic about the charity, willing to devote their time freely and be capable of active participation in board level decisions. It is always useful to have an 'operations' trustee or trustees, and generally this individual will be one of the easiest to identify and recruit. These individuals might or might not be closely involved in the day-to-day running of the charity, dependent on the size of the organisation.

For a larger charity it is important to have this knowledge on the board, to provide guidance and advice for the senior management team. For example, a medical charity will require trustees with specific knowledge in this area. This will give the charity credibility in its particular sector and should mean that operational decisions are always well-informed at board level.

It might also be considered helpful to have a trustee with a finance background and one with legal expertise, but this should be considered taking into account the size and complexity of each charity's activities. A small and simple charity might not require its treasurer to have formal financial training.


It is generally considered best practice to have a diverse board of trustees as this is more likely to give a wide range of experience and help ensure that the charity is fair in all its dealings. A diverse board containing a range of ages and ethnic backgrounds can increase public confidence in charities.

How to find new trustees

Many charities still use word of mouth and personal recommendations to find new trustees. If this works well and gives the mix of skills required, there is nothing wrong with continuing to use this method of recruitment. However, it is sometimes difficult to get an appropriately diverse mix of candidates when using this method as it limits the population from which potential trustees come.

Advertising reaches a greater group of people and gives the charity the opportunity to publish a job specification detailing the role and responsibilities. There are many forums for such advertising, including free resources specifically for charities (for example, The Trustee Finder service run by The Charity Network).

Internal recruitment can be a good source of relevant skills and knowledge, whether from volunteers or paid employees. Note that trustees cannot be paid for their role as trustee and if they are to continue as a paid employee there are legal requirements that will have to be considered and complied with.

It might be appropriate to appoint a trustee from the charity's beneficiary group. The trustees have a duty to run the organisation for the benefit of current and future beneficiaries and it could be argued that existing users are in an optimal position to comment on the provision of benefit from first-hand experience. They can also serve to enhance their fellow trustees' understanding of the needs of beneficiaries. In these cases, conflicts of interest can easily arise and must be properly managed. Additionally, trustees who are also beneficiaries must understand that they have the same legal duties as the other trustees and they are not on the board solely for their perspective on service provision. Indeed it is vitally important that all trustees are aware of their responsibilities; all trustees have a general duty of care and those with specialist knowledge should use their specialist skills to ensure that the charity is operating effectively.

Appointment of new trustees is just one of the many responsibilities of a trustee board. Identification of the skills required and then finding candidates who meet the requirements can be challenging, but if it is executed successfully your charity will have a strong board that will deliver good governance in order to protect the interests of current and future beneficiaries.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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