You can access governance support from CVS South Gloucestershire on Good Governance on how to best run your charity. 

To get you started here are five questions that every trustee should be prepared to ask. Not only will they help you to look intelligent, they might just help you to ensure that charity is better run. 

1) Please can I have a copy of the governing document? Before you turn up to your first meeting it is vital that you’re given a copy of the charity’s governing document – usually called the Articles of Association. This contains broad rules for how the charity should be run and how the business of trustee meetings should be conducted.

Getting this document is fundamental therefore to discharging your duties as a trustee. Too often trustees aren’t given a copy and so can’t hold officers and honorary officers properly to account.

2) Is this within our charitable objects? There’s always someone with a bright idea to help grow the charity and improve its finances. Often these look like they’re fool-proof, and so trustees can come under pressure to agree to them quickly. But one other thing a governing document will contain is a list of charitable objects – this sets out the range of things that the charity is supposed to achieve.

A charity only exists in order to fulfill its charitable objects, so it is vital that, before considering any other factors, trustees consider whether the proposed activity is something that the charity was actually set up to do.

3) Where’s the money going?

In the excitement of hearing about all of the excellent work that the charity is doing, there can sometimes be a temptation to forget about that other key factor in a charity’s success – finance.

Most charities will have money coming in and going out. It is a core task of trustees to ensure that all of the money coming into the charity is being spent appropriately and can be properly accounted for. In order to do that trustees need to see financial figures regularly and appoint external auditors to vouchsafe that what they’re being told by officers about the finances is true.

4) Please can you explain that to me?

It is not uncommon for trustees to worry about asking questions. They can sometimes be intimidated by what might appear to be the superior knowledge of officers. But it is absolutely crucial that trustees hold officers of the board to account – whether those officers are paid or volunteers.

To do that you have to be given the opportunity at trustees’ meetings to ask officers questions. This is both to ensure that you understand officers’ explanations, but also to ensure that you are given explanations in the first place. No trustee should ever be made to feel uncomfortable about asking an officer to explain themselves – officers are, after all, accountable to you.

5) How exactly does this benefit our beneficiaries?

Charities can undertake many different activities but given that there is only a finite amount of time and money available, it is important that trustees are clear about their priorities.

At the top of those priorities has to be the charity’s beneficiaries – the people, animals or groups that the charity was set up to serve. At the end of every line of expenditure, there should be a clear explanation of how that expenditure is of benefit to beneficiaries. If there’s a dispute about whether certain expenditure is worthwhile or necessary that is always the first question to ask.

Alan Fraser is chief executive of Birmingham YMCA

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