Should You Become a Trustee or a Volunteer?
Being a trustee and volunteering for a charity both come under the category of unpaid work. But each involves different things and comes with its own set of challenges. Here’s how to work out which would suit you best.
Charity volunteer work in the broadest sense includes a wide range of roles. It could mean working in a shop or a service centre, supporting service users or helping to fundraise, for example.
Being a trustee is a more specific type of volunteering. Trustees are a charity’s decision makers, and have final responsibility for its success or failure, although their role varies depending on the size and complexity of the organisation.
Determining whether a trustee or broader volunteer role is best for you depends on what you’d like to give and what you’re hoping to gain from the experience.
Operation vs strategy
Volunteering might be best for you if… you love getting involved in the nuts and bolts of an operation. If you see yourself packing up food parcels in a food bank or supporting the admin and answering phones in a charity office then volunteering is a great match for your skills and enthusiasm. Volunteer roles are often hands-on, customer- or service user-facing and operational.
Being a trustee might be best for you if… you want to make a strategic difference to how a charity operates. If you envisage advising a charity on how to manage their property portfolio, or whether it’s best to open a new service centre now or next year, or how to address a fundraising challenge then becoming a trustee could be your perfect opportunity.
Purpose and passion
Volunteering might be best for you if… you’re passionate about helping people at large or giving back to society generally. If it’s the act of helping that drives you, rather than a specific cause, you could consider seeking out a volunteer centre. This will give you an overview of various different volunteering roles that you could get involved with.
Being a trustee might be best for you if… you have a burning passion for a particular cause. Being driven by a specific purpose may mean you’re already equipped with valuable expertise and experience. So if you find a trustee role it’ll make your work particularly rewarding.
How much time do you have?
Volunteering might be best for you if… you have a few hours here and there that you can dedicate to volunteering, but this differs from week to week.
If you want to fit in a few hours around other commitments and don’t have regular time available, volunteering might be the better match for you. Choosing a charity that can offer you different slots on a rota, or ad hoc tasks will give you a greater degree of flexibility.
Being a trustee might be best for you if… you know you can commit a regular chunk of time to the role. How much time you need to be a trustee differs between organisations. However, the majority of charities will ask trustees to commit to attending between four to six regular board meetings a year. You’ll need time to read board papers beforehand, and possibly also for strategy away days and subcommittees. A rough guide is around 30 hours a year.
A charity that values diversity will make sure meetings are at times that are accessible to their trustees whatever their circumstances. So always ask at interview stage how they’re able to accommodate your personal situation, like your working week or caring responsibilities. However, you’ll need to make a regular time commitment in return.
Are you a generalist or specialist?
Volunteering might be better for you if… you like to dip in and out of various activities.
If you’re brilliant at turning your hand to anything and are happy to get stuck in wherever the need is greatest, then choosing to offer your time and expertise to a charity that manages a big pool of volunteers could be the perfect match. It’s also a great way to find out what you’re passionate about and which skills you enjoy using most if you’re planning to become a trustee in the future.
Being a trustee might be better for you if… you want to commit to using your existing skills or gain particular skills in a specific area. Charities will often recruit people who have specialist skills and experience their current board of trustees lacks. This could include someone who has experience of using the services they provide, or a person with digital transformation or fundraising skills, for example.
There are some basic skills that are essential for a trustee to have, but don’t let that hold you back from applying! A well-run charity should train a first-time trustee in essential knowledge like charity governance or basic finance, so always ask about this at the interview stage. And there are organisations that can help. Getting on Board supports people to become charity trustees, particularly those who are currently under-represented on trustee boards.
Fiona McAuslan is Getting on Board’s Marketing and Communications Director. Getting on Board is a trustee recruitment and diversity charity. Their guiding belief is that board diversity is key to effective decision making, better delivery of a charity’s services and the broader goal of creating a more equitable society.