Trustees are a million strong army

03 November 2023

Britain's charities are a true jewel in our nation's crown.

Hand stretched out with word cloud around it
These charities number nearly 200,0001, and make us one of the world’s most ‘giving’ countries2.
Day in, day out, they feed, clothe, protect and support the most vulnerable, changing and even saving lives.
It’s a record we can all rightly be proud of.

The million strong army

But none of it would be possible without trustees – the unseen, million-strong army of volunteer administrators who toil away behind the scenes making sure that everything runs smoothly.
It’s not glamorous, but it’s absolutely vital.
They’re the people who give up their evenings and weekends to ensure that their charity is carrying out its stated aims, and complying with the prevailing guidance and law.
It’s their (unpaid) job to ensure that resources – from staff, to buildings, to cash – are managed correctly, and that the charity is properly accountable.
It’s a significant responsibility which they are legally required to carry out with reasonable care and skill, putting the best interests of the organisation first at all times.
And it sits in an evolving landscape of strategic risk, emerging threats, and exciting opportunities – a landscape which has become even more tumultuous and unpredictable in recent times.

Where Risk Management comes in

That’s why the science and art of Risk Management is becoming ever more important.
The 21st-century trustee has a key role to play here.
Those trustees who have embedded a robust risk management framework into their board level decision-making will find it easier to identify potential issues before they actually occur.
They can and should set the tone in terms of risk culture, supporting the CEO and board and shaping both the strategic direction a charity takes and its appetite for risk and opportunity.
By opening themselves to challenge, and to new ways of working, and by sharing their personal experiences and skills, they’ll be in a better place to secure their charity and drive it forward to the benefit of recipients.
Of course, the world is complex and changing at pace, so it can be hard to know where to start.
Ecclesiastical Insurance is itself owned by a charity, Benefact Trust, so we’re well-placed to understand these challenges.
Our Charity Risk Barometer Report is a great place to start.
We’ve looked at the potential risks facing the charity sector and what it can do to manage and mitigate those threats.
From our research, the top challenges include increasing costs and loss of funding, reputational risk, volunteer and staff retention and climate change. 
But we also found resilience and creativity in the way charities are facing up to a volatile world. 
These are challenging times and trustees, and leaders have difficult decisions to make. Trustees need to think carefully about how such issues impact the needs of the charity and its users. 

Ways to counter risk – and even benefit

Having identified and quantified the possible risks their charity faces, agile trustees will want to come up with strategies to counter and even benefit from them.
For instance, if funding streams are threatened, now is the time to look at alternatives.
At a more basic level, as we move more towards a ‘cashless’ society, can you replace traditional small donations with a ‘contactless’ payment facility?
Likewise, the changing political climate will undoubtedly throw up new issues for many people.
For example, turmoil in many countries is creating a refugee crisis across a number of territories – can you sharpen the focus of your charitable activities to help in this area?
Or might this pose an unacceptable risk to your existing work – by spreading your time, money and people too thinly, and potentially exposing you to unanticipated new issues?
The important thing – whether you’re one of a small committee of trustees running a small local charity, or you’re involved with a national or even international organisation – is to buy into Risk Management throughout your operation.
Are your board and executive on the same page with regard to the charity’s risk appetite – do you allocate sufficient time and resource to a risk culture which encourages the right behaviours, or can you identify organisational blind spots?
Do you have a robust risk management framework in place, and are you constantly evaluating and evolving your risk management capabilities in what is an ever-changing environment?
Have you considered your ability to cope with ‘risk velocity’ – and are any emerging risks identified and escalated appropriately?
The fact is that this is not an optional extra – it’s now an essential part of doing business.
But if you adopt a rigorous and serious approach to this whole area, then trust me – it will pay enormous dividends across the projects and people you support.
Sarah Pearson, is head of Enterprise Risk Management, at Ecclesiastical
2 Britain is the world’s seventh most ‘giving’ country - CAF WORLD GIVING INDEX 2019
CIR Risk Management Awards 2022 - Risk Management Specialist Company of the Year