As the unemployment figure has now passed 2.38 million and the number of redundancies seems to   grow each day, there has been a marked increase in the number of people wishing to do voluntary work. One area gaining in popularity is professionals getting involved in the running of local voluntary organisations.

“Getting On Board”, a new body that places professionals on the governance boards of voluntary organisations as charity trustees, school governors or members of a board of a public body, has seen a marked increase in the number of barristers and other professionals enrolling after an article  appeared about the charity in the December issue of Counsel (see “Get on Board” p 32). As a result, 15 barristers, ranging from the junior Bar right through to barristers wishing to keep active during their retirement, signed up. A common theme amongst them all is their desire to contribute to society directly and to use their skills to help charities make a real difference. So, what can they expect?

The trustee’s role

If you join a management committee of a voluntary organisation as a board member your role is to give the committee the benefit of your general legal knowledge and experience on whatever topic is being discussed; not to act as a trouble-shooter. You will not be formally representing the board who should in any event already have access to legal advice. You bring the benefits of whatever background you come from. For example, I know a patent attorney who became a trustee of a Law Centre and when it decided to change the organisation’s business cards and logo, she was on hand to explain the issues to be addressed and the courses of action available.
In my experience management committees can vary widely in their style and indeed their effectiveness. They should constantly be keeping their skill set under review and, when recruiting new members, seek out people who will add something to the expertise among the committee as a whole. Potential recruits are frequently asked to complete a skills audit of their strengths.

Prior to joining it is a good idea, if possible, to sit in on a couple of meetings as an observer to get a feel for the atmosphere you will encounter if successful. Your choice of organisation may be influenced by any number of considerations. Most importantly it should be something you enjoy. For instance, I became a school governor after I chaired an admissions appeals panel.

As a general rule, a period of between four to six years should be enough time to become sufficiently familiar with at least some aspects of the committee’s work and perhaps take on duties such as chair of a sub-committee, if not of the overall body. Training is usually available on the roles and responsibilities of trustees, and other sources of information include A Guide to the Law for School Governors, The Voluntary Sector Legal Handbook and Charities Act 2006: What Trustees Need to Know. More specific information should also be accessible. In addition could well be that at least one trustee is an existing member of a professional organisation. And another board member, who is connected with another charity, might belong to the Association of Charity Officers. If that is the case, he or she should act as a conduit for keeping the board abreast of new developments.
The role of trustee can be as interesting and challenging as any paid position.
Paul Rand is a barrister. E-mail