Eric Smart – A trustee for a number of local charities tells us a little about what it has been like over the last 54 years.
In 1969, I was first introduced to trusteeship when I was only 21, when I was invited to join a board which ran an old people’s residential home in Putney. I was recruited specifically to do two things; assist in the preparation of the payroll for the paid staff and arrange an entertainment programme for the residents and I learned a lot as many of the responsibilities of being a trustee were not familiar to me at that time. In addition to my principal duties I had exposure to fund raising, how to deal with fraud and theft and how to exercise patience when dealing with the elderly.
I moved to Essex and continued in that role but soon found that the distance was too great and resigned having served for 8 years. I subsequently served on other committees but it wasn’t until 1995 that I once again became a trustee – this time for a National Charity, based in London and later in Peterborough.
This was an interesting time and it was hazy at times as to what my main responsibilities were. Should I prioritise local members or should I prioritise my duties to the board? There should not be any doubt that duty to the board is first and foremost and when I later became chairman of that same charity, this was something I took great pains to emphasise to my fellow trustees. My motto as chair is still fundamental to my beliefs – ‘never let volunteering be an excuse to do a bad job’.
At work, I was responsible for my company’s involvement in ‘Business in the Community’ and placed many of our employees into volunteering roles in local schools. I personally became a mentor for one of the local head teachers. When I retired from full-time employment in 2003, I became a mentor to the newly appointed CEO of the Volunteer Centre in Hackney, which I undertook with great relish. That CEO then invited me to join their board, ten months later I became chair and remained there for 6 years. I feel it is very important to make sure that one does not stay too long as chair in any organisation – new blood will always bring new ideas and move the organisation forward. In 2011, when I resigned from the National Charity’s board and from being chair at Hackney it left a gap in my life and I registered my interest in becoming a trustee with the volunteer centre in Chelmsford. In no time at all, I was approached by a local mental health charity and I have remained on their board to the present time.
We are a very small board and therefore get involved in all matters relating to the duties of a trustee; finance, staffing, procedures and policies, constitutional matters, legal, and most importantly, strategy. Anyone seeing that list might be put off from becoming a Trustee but the board is a team and as such, each individual brings something different to the table. Collectively, they achieve success because of the diversity within the membership of the board. Your contribution will be valuable.
I am presently a trustee of Chelmsford & District Scottish Society, chair of Hospital Radio Chelmsford (HRC), and a member of Essex Respite & Care Association, the local mental health charity. Before joining the board of HRC last month, I had done some work on helping them with the transition from being a registered charity to become a CIO (Charitable Incorporated Organisation). This was a new departure for me and I learned a lot in the process which helps to illustrate how one’s knowledge can so easily be enhanced by being a trustee.
There can be a misconception that in being a trustee, one puts oneself at financial risk as you may be liable for the debts of the charity. This is simply not true as these days most charities have Trustee Indemnity Insurance which protects the trustees and in the case of trustees of a CIO, they are categorically not liable for the debts of the CIO.
There is no good reason not to become a trustee but so many reasons why one should. I can only speak from experience and say that I have met and dealt with some lovely people, learned a lot about things of which I knew little and feel that I contribute to the well being of the charities and their members and assist new trustees to ease into their roles. I would miss it a lot!