Holding the flame of trusteeship high
Charity Commission CEO Helen Stephenson's speech given yesterday at BDO's Trustees for Change event, as part of Trustees' Week 2023.
Good afternoon, I’m delighted to be with you here today, kicking off Trustees’ Week 2023.
This is my seventh – and last – Trustees’ Week as CEO of the Commission. This campaign has always been a personal highlight for me – being both a celebration and serious business.
It is, in my view, not just nice, but necessary that we take time each year to hold the flame of trusteeship up high, to showcase the enormous contribution trustees make to our society, to thank them, and to encourage others to get involved in charities, as trustees.
Trusteeship is a crucial, yet often undervalued, public service but it matters to all of us. The passion, skill and experience people bring to trusteeship determines not just the success of individual charities but also contributes in great part to the health of our communities and the cohesion of our society.
Trusteeship is rewarding as well as challenging – sometimes delightful, sometimes hard work, requiring energy and imagination in the here and now – and is also, always, an investment in the future.
Trustees, collectively, not only ensure charities deliver on their purposes today, but also sow the seeds for the strong society we want to see tomorrow.
A key personal focus for me since starting at the Commission in 2017, has been to nurture the right relationship with trustees – to be neither cosy friend, nor fearsome foe, but to serve as a trusted regulator: supporting trustees to get it right, helping them to address problems where they occur, and taking firm action when we find abuse and wrongdoing that can serve to undermine trust in charity as a whole.
Over recent years, we have made huge investments in our online guidance, transforming our offer so that what we publish serves the needs of busy trustees.
I’m incredibly proud, for example, of our suite of 5-minute guides, which provide the basic syllabus of issues trustees need to know about, in a simple, easy to read, actionable format.
Our digital trustee campaign has been taking that guidance to trustees via social channels, with videos, prompts and imagery designed to engage trustees in a positive, affirming way.
For example, just a few weeks ago, we launched a quiz, which trustees can use to test their knowledge of their core duties. It has been a roaring success – the quiz has been taken over 54,000 times, which is incredible and a testament to the appetite trustees have for showing and growing their knowledge. And just for the avoidance of doubt – I am among the 54,000!
These are really important developments designed to better support trustees to, in turn, run their charities with confidence, in line with the law.
But we’re on a journey – there is much yet to achieve. I want us to be the place trustees come to when they need advice and information on how to manage their charity.
As you know, one of the main aims of Trustees’ Week is to inspire more people to come forward to serve as trustees.
To prepare a pipeline of able and passionate people, willing to take on the mantle of trusteeship, ensuring the good work of charities is sustainable.
But we know from our research that many charities are already carrying vacancies, with some struggling to fill gaps.
So we need to widen the pool of trustees, and that requires people of all backgrounds to come forward and volunteer their time. To show up, for their communities and the causes they care about. To offer their skills, perspective, experience, and passion.
Being a trustee brings with it many benefits – and the opportunity to develop, or hone, different skills: whether that’s experience of being on a Board, managing an organisation, or working as a team and making collective decisions. These are important life skills which not only benefit the charity but also benefit the individual trustee.
I’m really pleased that later in the week I will be holding a round table with young trustees, to understand how they came to their role, what they think about it and – importantly - how we can encourage more young people to come forward as trustees.
We know there are nearly a million trusteeships in the sector but it’s certainly not the case that all these roles are filled. Simply – we need more people to come on board, to take on the responsibility and so make sure the charity sector can grow and flourish in the future.
Our research to date has shown us a lot about the attitudes and experiences of trustees but we – and many others – would like to know more about the trustees themselves, so as to enable the sector to work out what the barriers to trusteeship might be, and start to break those barriers down. We are now actively looking with partners to develop further research in this area, so as in due course to supply data to help this process of promoting wider trusteeship.
Trusteeship should be an important social obligation for all people, including young people, people of colour, women, and those from different educational backgrounds or regions of the country – and many would find that it opens doors for them in other areas of their lives as well.
This really matters for the future of the sector.
The seven years I will have served as CEO of the Commission have been marked by world-changing events, and rapid change.
Covid, war in Europe, devastating natural disasters around the world and at home, the cost-of-living crisis.
Advances in digital technology, notably around AI, have transformed our lives and the way in which we communicate, and will continue to do so.
Change of course is not new.
John F Kennedy, who so often put big ideas into simple language – said of change that it is the “law of life”.
But the pace of change – technological, economic, cultural – is new, and it’s increasing.
To survive, let alone to thrive, charities must remain resilient, flexible, imaginative and responsive - not least to changing needs and expectations of the people they were set up to serve and of their supporters.
That requires diversity of thought and experience at the very top.
You don’t need to take my word for it either.
Simon Widdop is a trustee at a charity based in Yorkshire, which provides emotional and financial support to families in the region with children who have life-limited illnesses and disabilities.
Simon is speaking about his experience of trusteeship as part of this year’s Trustees’ Week.
This is what he says about board diversity:
It is great being a part of a team of trustees that support each other. Each of the trustees have a different background and this helps to bring in experience and a different perspective to day-to-day decisions. Having a team of trustees brings a wealth of knowledge that will drive the charity forward and support many more children than we could have done otherwise.
This testimony illustrates that talking up diversity is not about talking down those who already serve as trustees.
As I said, my years at the Commission have been marked by enormous change – change out there in the world and change in the way in which we serve the trustees we regulate.
But some truths are unchanging.
One is that the Commission’s fundamental mission is, and will remain, to nurture the relationship of trust between the public, and charities.
Ensuring that people continue to support the causes they care about with their money and their time.
Another is that in order to thrive – to keep improving lives and strengthening society – charities will need passionate, motivated trustees.
So I’d like to say thank you to each and every one of those people who are serving as trustees at this time – the work you do is of immeasurable value to society.
And I’d like to encourage anyone who cares about a cause, or has a vision for a better society, to consider becoming a trustee.
There’s no better way of making a difference.
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