Ethics and Governance

A guiding light for trustees

Dec 03, 2019
Níall Fitzgerald explains how to achieve consensus, do your duty, and be yourself as a charity or non-profit trustee.

There is something exceptional about those who volunteer their time, skill and expertise to a board, or sub-committee, for the benefit of a cause they feel passionate about. As Nelson Mandela put it, “there can be no greater gift than that of giving one’s time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return”.

But being a board or sub-committee member (trustee) for a charity or not-for-profit organisation is not without its challenges. These challenges can present themselves around the board table in the form of disagreement or frustration as you strive to get things done. People skills and leadership skills will be called on in order to listen effectively and convey concern, constructively challenge and support the ideas of other trustees in order to achieve consensus.

Difficult dilemmas

Achieving consensus is not always easy, especially when resource constraints (financial or otherwise) impact the organisation’s ability to realise its strategic objectives. Difficult dilemmas can be tabled at board meetings, which can present challenges for the organisation and test the core values that compelled each trustee to volunteer in the first place. A classic example involves proposals to suspend services in one area to the detriment of some beneficiaries in order to ensure continuity in another. An avalanche of conflicting priorities around the board table can result in an impasse.

Challenges like these can make a trustee grateful for a good governance framework. Such a framework can provide clarity on their duties and responsibilities to the organisation, including the various stakeholders it serves. There can be comfort in understanding the policies and procedures that ensure the collation and adequate flow of accurate information from the front-line service providers (both staff and volunteers) and senior management to the board. Such information results in better decision-making that is in the best interests of the organisation as opposed to any individual or group of trustees. Such a framework will also provide a welcome format for effective and well-chaired discussion at the board, and ensure that the right level of diversity, skills and expertise are enabled to inform the decision-making process.

Rule of law

But what about the rule of law regarding the trustee’s duties and responsibilities? An understanding of these rules will help channel a thought process towards what is important for the organisation. A trustee does not need a law degree to understand these requirements. Rather than feel overwhelmed, it is useful to first understand the organisation (including its vision, mission and values), its legal structure (e.g. company, trust, unincorporated etc.) and the area within which it operates. This process will highlight the laws and regulations that are most relevant for consideration. Figure 1 illustrates the types of legal and regulatory duties that apply to trustees. Notice that some overlap and they have a common design to ensure that the organisation is always the focus of consideration.


Being involved as a trustee can be the gift that keeps on giving for the individual and the organisation. Challenges present opportunities for trustees to exercise values, apply skills, provide expertise, assess problems and inform decisions in a different way – for example, through the lens of life-changing consequences. A good governance framework and adherence to the rule of law will provide another useful lens to guide, rather than impede, trustees towards consensus on trickier dilemmas.