The responsibilities of charity trustees
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The legal responsibilities of charity trustees.
Charity trustees have specific legal responsibilities. These include:
- being responsible for directing the affairs of the charity
- ensuring its is solvent and well-run
- ensuring it delivers the charitable outcomes for the benefit of the public for which is has been set up
- ensuring the charity complies with charity law, its own governing document and other relevant legislations
- ensuring that the charities funds and assets are use only to further the objects (or purpose) of the charity
- to avoid undertaking activities that might place the charity’s funds, assets, endowments or reputation at risk
- to use reasonable skill and care in their work as trustees
- to consider getting external professional advice when appropriate e.g. if there is a material risk to the charity
- to act with integrity and avoid any personal conflicts of interest or misuse of charity funds or assets.
Trustees must act in the best interests of the charity and its beneficiaries. They must avoid situations where their personal or other interests conflict with the interests of the charity and must not profit from their role unless it has been allowed.
In carrying out their duties, trustees have a duty of care to act reasonably and prudently, and a higher duty in areas of their own expertise.
The trustee board takes decisions collectively and they must meet as often as they need to in order to carry out their responsibilities.
Trustees can only take decisions independently in their role as trustee if the governing document or statutory provisions, and a decision of the trustee board, gives them the authority to do so. An individual trustee cannot bind the other trustees to a course of action unless it has been authorised by the trustees as a whole.
Trustees are not expected to be experts in every field, but they have a duty to take advice when they are not confident about taking a decision.
Trustees need to remember that duties such as that to avoid conflicts of interest, act with integrity and not obtain personal benefit are triggered not only by their own interests but also those of individuals or organisations connected to them by personal financial linking or duties. For example, family, business partners or other trusteeships. Such people are referred to as “connected persons” or persons “sharing a common purse”.
There are a few people who cannot be trustees, for example people who are bankrupt or have unspent convictions for dishonesty. There are also some age restrictions. Do check your eligibility to be a charity trustee.
The Charity Commission or your charity can take action against you if you do not discharge your responsibilities properly. This is very rare and only likely to arise if your failure to act properly causes a loss to the charity or improper gain to trustees.
- CC3 - The Essential Trustee: what you need to know and CC10 - Hallmarks of an Effective Charity are useful guides from the Charity Commission.
- Reducing the risks (pdf 247kb) offers practical advice on assessing and minimising the risks associated with charity trustee liability.
- Duties of Charity Trustees (pdf 546kb) is a clear and useful guide published by solicitors Bates Wells and Braithwaite.
- For Love and Money: Governance and Social Enterprise (pdf 1.74kb) highlights aspects of governance that are specific to social enterprises.
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