Many voices, working together, with purpose
Orlando Fraser's speech to Getting on Board’s Festival of Trusteeship, as part of Trustees' Week 2023.
I am delighted to have this opportunity – on the first day of Trustees’ Week – to speak to you about the vital role of trustees in our society and what the Charity Commission is doing to support them.
I want to start by acknowledging the great work of Getting on Board in championing trusteeship, and in training and recruiting trustees from all walks of life. Your work is playing an important role in equipping the next generation of trustees and in supporting charities to find the right people to step up and serve.
Reflections on trusteeship
One of the privileges of my role is having the chance to visit charities across England and Wales to meet the trustees, volunteers and staff who give so much time and effort to ensuring that they thrive.
I’ve had the opportunity to visit an extraordinary range of charities – from a community garden in Birmingham to a veterans’ hub in Barry; from bereavement support in Stafford to museums in Bath.
What they all have in common is dedicated and supportive trustees who give their time for a cause they believe in.
Trustees are critical to the charity ecosystem in England and Wales. Their contribution helps shape the character, wellbeing and resilience of our communities – meeting the needs of beneficiaries across the country and, in some cases, across the world.
So the first and most important thing I want to say today is ‘thank you’ to each and every trustee – nearly one million people across the country. Your service deserves to be recognised and I’m delighted that Trustees’ Week gives us the opportunity to shine a light on you. You are leading the way where, for the good of society, many more need to follow.
Trustees’ Week is a time for us to come together to celebrate the achievements of trustees and to recognise the time, commitment and effort they bring to their charities to help them thrive.
It is also an opportunity for trustees themselves to connect with others to share experiences and develop skills. It is also a moment for all of us to consider what more can be done to inspire others to get involved and to encourage prospective trustees to take up the baton.
And of course, it is also a moment for non-trustees from all backgrounds and walks of life to think about how they could step up to the plate and become trustees, to put something back into society.
The Charity Commission is delighted to work with our partners to support Trustees’ Week, with a range of events and activities going on across the sector centred on this year’s theme: “Many voices, working together, with purpose”. It’s a phrase that sums up the nature of trusteeship, as people with different perspectives and backgrounds come together to deliver on a common purpose, for the benefit of society.
The role of the Commission
I recognise that the Commission has a crucial role to play in influencing the environment in which trustees operate. The decisions we take, the services we provide and the guidance we offer all play a material part in the daily life of a trustee.
When I joined the Commission I set out my intention to lead an expert regulator that supports trustees as much as possible – guided by our values of fairness, balance and independence.
Fairness means simply that we will follow the law and make sure that we offer a fair legal process to all when using our powers.
Balance means that we will strike the right balance in being robust and being supportive – holding charities to account for meeting basic standards and dealing robustly with intentional wrongdoers and those who are grossly negligent; but acting in a proportionate way and not coming down hard on trustees who make honest, reasonable mistakes.
We recognise that trustees are almost always volunteers who are not necessarily legal or financial experts. Honest mistakes will occur and I want us to focus on helping trustees put them right when things have not gone according to plan.
And we will work independently, meaning we will undertake our duties free of the influence of party politicians, of government, of interest groups, of the media and of the sector itself – yet be alive and aware of their priorities and concerns, looking forward to identify risks that face the sector at large and evolving our approach where these may jeopardise public trust in the sector.
The Commission’s five year strategy, due to be launched in January, will commit us as an organisation to embed and live these values.
And I hope that you will all recognise and share the progress we make as we do so.
Support for trustees
In my very first speech as Chair of the Commission, I said that I wanted us to focus on supporting trustees to get it right. I want to reiterate that here in Trustees’ Week and set out some of the ways in which we have been doing that.
Most importantly, our guidance – which is easily available online and designed to help trustees run their charities and understand their legal obligations, written in plain English (or Welsh) and designed to be accessible to all.
Earlier this year we published our newest piece of guidance, on charities’ use of social media.
It makes clear that social media can be a highly effective way for a charity to engage its audiences and communicate its work, but that there are risks involved, for which trustees should plan.
If your charity makes use of social media then I would encourage you to read it.
I want trustees to feel able to come to us when they need advice. The Commission is a source of free, authoritative advice but too few trustees come to us in the first instance.
With that in mind, we have been working to complement our guidance with a range of other tools to help trustees – including our suite of bitesize 5-minute guides which cover a variety of issues, from the basics of managing charity finances to our newest guide on political activity and campaigning.
And last month we launched our most recent trustee engagement campaign, focused around a new Trustee Quiz to encourage participants to test their knowledge – so far, the quiz has been taken nearly 50,000 times by people online.
The campaign culminates this week, so please do check it out if you haven’t already seen it – and of course try to get 10 out of 10. Average score is 80%, so pleased by that !
Our Annual Return for 2023 has also been updated with trustees in mind, following an extensive consultation. The updated question set will help us better assess risks facing charities, as well as enhancing the transparency and accountability of the sector – but it is also designed to be more user-friendly and easier for charities to navigate, with simplified questions and less information required for smaller organisations.
The Annual Return is accessible through our new My Charity Commission Account – our new digital service which has been available since July. The service is designed to facilitate a more direct relationship with trustees, helping to ensure they are supported in their role and equipped to run their charities well.
This will be a significant long-term change in our relationship with trustees. I am aware that some charities are having issues onboarding on the new service at the moment.
Most are successfully onboarded, but some are experiencing problems. I would like to use this opportunity to make clear that the Commission will ensure that no charity is disadvantaged because of difficulties accessing the service and we are working hard to meet the high demand of queries we are receiving from those wanting assistance accessing and using the system.
Overall, our work is intended to show our existing trustees that we are there to help, and to non-trustees that there is plenty of support from us to help to you take up the baton and now become trustees.
Broadening the appeal of trusteeship
As well as supporting existing trustees, I am keen to explore what more can be done to broaden the appeal of trusteeship to the widest range of people. Indeed I sometimes hear as I travel the country that organisations are struggling to recruit new trustees.
Each person’s story is different and each trustee I’ve met had a different reason for getting involved. For some it is because of their direct personal link with the cause – an illness or bereavement they have suffered, or an issue in their community which has touched them in some way. For others it is a way of giving something back and using their time and abilities in a way that benefits others.
As we reflect again on the theme for Trustees’ Week we are reminded that “many voices” are required to enable our sector to thrive.
So the Commission is keen to see more people step up to serve their communities as trustees, and trusts that more will do so to fulfil their social obligations to society.
In the words of President Kennedy, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
As with each challenge facing the charity sector, we are continually engaging with stakeholders to further understand the issues involved, as well as encouraging the sector to think proactively about how to encourage more people from all backgrounds to seek trusteeship and serve alongside them.
We will be active throughout Trustees’ Week with this objective in mind – and I hope that many people will seriously look into serving in this way this week.
So as Trustees’ Week gets underway I want to reiterate my thanks to all those who serve in this way.
The public service exemplified by trustees and volunteers goes to the very heart of the meaning of charity.
It is something that helps bring us together as a society, and it is something that we will rightly celebrate and acknowledge this week and beyond.
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