Case study: Insight into life as a charity trustee

Posted over 2 years ago By Mary Hardy

I volunteer as a Trustee for CABA, the charity that supports the wellbeing of past and present ICAEW members and their families, and which partners with ICAEW to provide I also chair CABA’s Audit and Risk Committee (ARC). 
Preparing and attending board and committee meetings are a crucial part of my role, as well as balancing the current demands on the organisation with future needs of beneficiaries. Here are some of my thoughts on how I prepare for meetings, how they run and some of the competing priorities we consider. 
Setting strategy
The Board meets four times a year and ARC three. In addition, the Board has an away day with management when we take time out to think about strategy and what’s going to impact the organisation over the coming years.
CABA provides a wide range of wellbeing and support services to chartered accountants and their dependants. We are fortunate to be well funded thanks to a large legacy some years ago, but, although we do not have the fundraising challenges most other charities face, we know that this situation will come to an end and the money we have will not last forever. 
When we first received the funds we had to think about how to spend them in line with CABA’s objectives, which meant establishing new services and expanding the work force to provide them. Now we have three constant issues to address which usually get covered at the away day in the early autumn:
  • What services could/should we offer? The list can be endless, but we have to decide whether they will add value for many (in which case are they affordable long term?) or whether they are ‘one-offs’ which might benefit a few but are still worth doing.
  • Who are our beneficiaries? Our beneficiaries are defined as ‘members of ICAEW’. The Institute is developing a number of new designations and qualifications and we need to understand whether those taking these up are members and, therefore, beneficiaries.
  • How do we ensure our potential beneficiaries are aware of CABA and what we can offer? A task which has been made more complex by GDPR!
Getting prepared for meetings
CABA uses Board Pad, a secure online meeting and collaboration tool, so we receive all papers electronically about a week before the meeting. Sadly, it is the case as a NED or Trustee that you often find you have to give up part of your weekend to read papers! And having spent a lifetime working with paper, I am working hard to get used to electronic papers. I often print off the agenda so I’ve something to scribble on and I still ask for a hard copy of ARC papers as I can’t cope with chairing a meeting using an iPad yet!
In terms of preparation time, this will vary with each individual and the topics on the agenda, but I always assume reading and understanding the papers will take nearly as long as the meeting itself. You can probably get away with less than that but that might inhibit your ability to join in with the discussion at the Board meeting which would be a shame as that is the best part. 
In the meeting you might find most people have reached the same conclusion as you, or someone has an additional piece of information or background that changes everything or that someone else has reached a different conclusion based on the same information . Either way, lively discussion can ensue, from which you can learn, but in the end the Board has to agree on the way forward.
Worthwhile time commitment
Being a Trustee does take time and commitment. As well as reading the papers themselves you do need to read around them and keep up to date with the industry – I belong to the ICAEW’s Charity and Voluntary Community which helps me to do this.
But, whatever your background and whatever the charity you’re working with, you can always make a contribution if you join in and that’s what makes it worthwhile.