Before accepting a volunteering role it is important that you have a good understanding of the organisation that is offering the role to you. This is particularly important if you are considering becoming a member of its board where ultimately you will be responsible for the organisation. You will need to consider the organisation’s situation and determine whether you have the right skills and sufficient time to commit to support it effectively in meeting its objectives.
Below we list some ideas of how to evaluate the organisation. If you have further questions or would like further support in your role as a not-for-profit board member, ICAEW has developed a number of help sheets and can also offer membership of the Charity and Voluntary Sector Special Interest Group. Visit the links at the end of the article find out more.
1.Have a look at the organisation’s website – what does the organisation do? Do you agree with its objectives? Who is responsible for the organisation? Is there any financial information available?
2.If the organisation is a registered charity in England and Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, have a look at its entry on the register of the relevant regulator:
- the Charity Commission for charities registered in England and Wales (www.charitycommission.gov.uk);
- the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator for charities registered in Scotland (www.oscr.org.uk); or
- the Charity Commission for Northern Ireland for charities registered in Northern Ireland (www.charitycommissionni.org.uk).
Apart from information about the activities of the charity, the register will show whether the organisation is up to date with all applicable filing requirements (which is an important indicator of how well the charity is managed).
3. Review the latest published annual accounts. Have the accounts been subject to external review, either an audit or an independent examination? If so, is the audit/examination report unqualified? Does the trustees’ annual report portray an organisation that has a clear vision about how it meets its aims? What are its plans for the future? If this is not the case would you be able to help the organisation to improve its reporting regime? How is the organisation funded? What are the principal sources of income and are there restricted income funds and/or endowments? If there are restricted funds or endowments, are there also unrestricted income funds that are sufficient to cover core activities and activities that are not subject to unrestricted funding for a sufficient a period (normally around three to six months), in the absence of any further income being available?
Charities tread a fine line between, on the one hand, the requirement not to hoard cash but to spend money on their charitable activities, and, on the other hand, the need to ensure that there are funds to sustain those activities in the future. What is the stated reserves policy of the organisation? If they do not have one would you be able to help them develop one?
4.Ask about contractual obligations and potential liabilities that could affect the organisation’s financial stability. For example, are there operating leases that commit the organisation to a level of expenditure that may be difficult to meet if its income falls? Charities can be vulnerable to pressure to enter into equipment contracts, and payments are often made under direct debit.
Scrutinising a list of all direct debits can be revealing. Does it occupy premises on a lease that is subject to periodic rent reviews? If so, could the next review result in an increase that the organisation cannot afford? Is there a liability for dilapidations? What are the pension scheme arrangements – does the organisation belong to a multi-employer scheme or operate its own defined benefit scheme that may be in deficit?
5. Is the organisation incorporated (eg, a charitable company or Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO)) or unincorporated (for example a trust or association)? This is particularly important if you are considering becoming a trustee of a charity as the way it is constituted will affect your personal liability.
6. If the organisation is a registered company you can search for it on the Companies House website (www.companieshouse.gov.uk) and get basic company information such as current appointments. If the organisation is a registered charity the directors should be the same as the trustees listed on the Charity Commission record for the charity.
7. Have a look at the organisation’s governing document (such as Trust Deed or Articles) to find out how board members are appointed and can resign again. Ask what induction and training is arranged for new board members.
8. You can also ask to attend a board meeting as an observer so that you can see how the trustees work and get a feel for how you would fit in. This is important for the current trustees, as well, so it is standard practice for prospective trustees to be invited to observe meetings before the decision to appoint/accept appointment is made. What financial information is presented to the trustees at their meetings and how up to date is it?
9. Ask to visit the charity’s offices/place of service delivery to observe their work in action.