Julia Carrette, Sussex Community Foundation Trustee and chair of our grants committee shares her experience of being a trustee at the Foundation.
There are over one million trustees in the UK. People from different backgrounds, of different ages and with varied knowledge and experience are beavering away behind the scenes in thousands of charities and voluntary groups. From household names like The National Trust or Oxfam to members of management committees of small local groups, trustees oversee the mission of all types of groups. Much would simply not happen in communities without these organisations, and I have been lucky enough to both work at some of them and at times benefit from the services they offer.
Having set up and been an adviser to many charities I have also managed some, been a fundraiser and run grant programmes before. Seeing things from both sides of the table has been illuminating. I was therefore honoured to be invited to be a trustee of Sussex Community Foundation and my role is essentially no different to those trustees above. Whilst the Foundation has its own ‘house-style’ and policies carefully worked out to suit the work, my responsibility is to help, alongside the other trustees, to deliver the purpose of Sussex Community Foundation as laid down in our governing document. If that sounds grand it is actually remarkably simple, to paraphrase The Charity Commission summary, my duties as a trustee are:
- Always acting in the best interests of Sussex Community Foundation, putting it first in decisions I am involved in
- Helping to manage our resources and finances
- Getting decisions made in the best way possible alongside other trustees and in collaboration with the staff
- Safeguarding people (which actually applies to all charities regardless of whether they deal directly with children or vulnerable adults)
- Avoiding conflicts of interest (which can be about loyalties or about material benefits)
- Ensuring that SCF is accountable and reporting the relevant information about our work in the appropriate places (e.g. our annual report and accounts which are submitted to The Charity Commission among other places and are available on our website).
As a trustee I am not paid, it is a voluntary role, with different responsibilities to staff or other volunteers. We are fortunate to be able to pay very skilled people to work for us. They are professionals, there to do a job and the best thing I can do as a trustee is to let them get on with it. That doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally ask a question at a Board meeting or make a suggestion in a sub-committee about how something is progressing but having been on the other side of the desk as a member of staff in a charity I know well how important it is that there is some space between the role of a trustee and the job of the staff. I can offer support and be a sounding board to staff if needed but my main energy is used within the Board.
A day in the life as a Sussex Community Foundation Trustee
It is difficult to distil it all but a ‘day in the life’ for me as a trustee might go something like this:
Read Board papers including minutes of other sub-committee meetings and reports from activities or from staff, ready for attendance at the Board meeting. I may double-check things if I am unsure of details or make notes to ask questions at the meeting. It is important if a number of topics are going to be discussed to know what is coming up. Even in a small charity, there would normally be an agenda and some background papers sent out before a meeting.
I will read through the minutes of the last grant-making meeting and the current list of applications we are going to be considering at the next grants meeting. I chair the small committee which normally meets three to four times a year (although much more often during the coronavirus lockdown) therefore I will make notes about each application. I may also go online to look up background information. All grants committee trustee members read these papers and are well-informed about the applications by the time we come to meet.
Not all charities or voluntary groups have sub-committees but it can be useful for covering key topics such as Human Resources or Finance to focus on these in a smaller meeting before they come to the Board or main committee.
I might have a phone conversation with a member of the staff team about a forthcoming agenda item to ensure I’ve got the latest information in preparing for the meeting. I might also have a look at the UK Community Foundations (UKCF) website which is our national membership body to which most community foundations belong; UKCF usually has helpful background about the latest thinking in philanthropy or diversity initiatives.
I will normally attend the Board meeting alongside other trustees and that’s where most of our major decisions are discussed and decided. These meetings are usually enjoyable and stimulating. Our Board is diverse both in terms of our backgrounds and the varied experience we bring to the table which ensures discussion is balanced and comprehensive, and decision-making is robust.
Why Julia became a trustee at the Foundation
As mentioned, it is an honour for me to be involved in this way. I get to use some of my experience and I am contributing to the work and direction of a charity which has the best interests of the Sussex community in its vision. I love what we do and what we stand for and I am eternally thankful that there are philanthropic donors, partners and individuals who make this possible. I am also learning all the time and engaging with some of the most highly knowledgeable and skilled people I have ever worked with. Most importantly I know Sussex Community Foundation is delivering much-needed grants to a wide variety of voluntary organisations and charities who are themselves providing help and support often on the ‘frontline’ in our communities and without which we would all be the poorer.
If you get the opportunity to become a trustee do go for it, there is plenty of support out there to help you understand the role and you will gain really good experience.
Julia Carrette, Trustee