Charities and their trustees' responsibilities

The following article was originally published in the Rhyl, Prestatyn and Abergele Journal newspaper on 10 February 2016.
Charities are an extremely important part of our national life. They enable individuals to come together to support causes that are of value to them and provide enormous public benefit. They augment the work of government-provided services. They have a unique and important role to play in our society.
Sometimes, however, charities get into trouble. The Public Administration Committee, on which I sit, has recently carried inquiries both into the fundraising practices of some national charities and also into the failure of Kids Company, which collapsed last summer, having received over £42 million of grants from successive governments.
Primary responsibility for the conduct of charities rests with their trustees. These are important positions and are invariably unremunerated. They are usually filled by sincere and dedicated individuals who have a keen sense of public duty and an interest in the work and aims of the charity.
They are also positions that demand a high degree of responsibility from the individuals who fill them. Trustees need to recognise that legal responsibility for the conduct of the charity resides with them and that if anything goes wrong, they may be liable in law.
In the case of Kids Company, the committee’s report expressed concern that trustees repeatedly ignored auditors’ clear warnings about the charity’s precarious finances. It further formed the view that the board of trustees lacked the experience of youth services or psychotherapy necessary to interrogate the decisions of the Chief Executive.
There are hundreds of small and medium-sized charities in North Wales, each of them with a board of trustees. The lesson of the two recent committee reports is clear: do not become a charity trustee unless you are entirely confident that you have the necessary expertise to fulfil the role and have sufficient time to devote to it.
Trusteeship can be very rewarding, and charity trustees perform hugely valuable work. However, the role is not one for the well-meaning amateur. It carries significant legal responsibility and anyone undertaking a trusteeship should be fully aware of the obligations it brings with it.

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