Why? What’s your motivation?
It can be useful to think for a minute about your motivation for getting involved. This can help you make the right choice of organisation to get involved with. Do you have a particular area of interest? Do you want to get involved at the beginning of an initiative? Are the social bonds you hope to make important? Would you like to gain experience that will enhance your CV?
Can you be a trustee (legal requirements)
Provided you are 18 or over, of sound mind and have not been convicted of an offence involving theft or dishonesty, not bankrupt (or legal equivalent), and not banned from being a trustee or company director then you can. (Click here for the exact wording for company and a charity).
Do you have enough time?
Few people can readily answer ‘yes’ to this question. Everyone seems to be too busy. However, to do justice to the organisation and yourself you will need to find some time – which varies from organisation to organisation. In the early days count on just an hour or so per week. Commitments can expand with experience.
Choosing or being chosen?
It’s rare to be asked ‘cold’ but if you volunteer for the organisation or are known to the organisation in some other capacity it may be that you get an invitation to join the committee. However, many people arrive on a committee via an ad on web site, notice board, volunteer centre or newsletter. The advantage of this approach is that you don’t have to wait to be asked and the choice of organisation is more in your control.
Long engagement or shotgun wedding?
Organisations vary enormously in their recruitment procedures. Some throw you in at the deep end and may even propose you at the very first meeting. Others take a much more considered approach with opportunities for you to shadow meetings and get to know the organisation before committing. Find out which type of organisation you are getting involved with early on in the process!
Induction – like an employee – or DIY
The nature of your introduction to the organisation will probably give you a clue as to its attitude to induction. Organisations that throw people in at the deep end initially tend to continue in that vein and may offer no structured induction at all.
Others create a comprehensive induction programme along the lines of that of an employee, with extensive meetings, briefings and information to read.
Where to find out information for yourself
Whichever type of induction you get it is always worth doing some homework yourself. Think about the background to the organisation, sector, charity, beneficiaries etc (internet research, past annual reports, Charity Commission and Companies House searches).
Try and talk to a cross section of committee members (particularly the ones you sense being steered away from).
Ask to read the minute book and peruse the last years worth of minutes (you don’t have to read every word but they can give you an invaluable insight into the organisation).
Having second thoughts
It is not uncommon to question the point after the first meeting, particularly if there has been no induction. Even if there has, evidence shows that most trustees don’t feel they’ve made a useful contribution until they’ve been on a committee for a year or more.
Phone a friend
It can be enormously helpful if you identify a friendly individual early on who is willing to take phone calls or emails and of whom you can ask questions that you would otherwise not ask – certainly not in the meeting.
Make the most of meetings
The cardinal rule is to always prepare for meetings. Read the minutes of the last meeting, the agenda and any papers. Remember you only have 2 hours. You will waste those 2 hours if you spend them reading papers you should have read before hand.
Take on a specific role on the committee
At some point you may be asked to take on a specific role, or you may volunteer for a particular role if you feel you can contribute more. Carefully consider whether you have the time and ability to carry it adequately. Don’t be pressured into taking on something you don’t want. Some committees are known to unfairly pressure new comers to take on roles like ‘secretary’ – which can involve a lot of work as secretary – particularly those in staff-less, all volunteer organisations – is actually a pivotal and onerous role. It is often the secretary who takes and distributes minutes and organises meetings. Be warned. On the other hand, some new committee members may feel compelled to offer a particular skill, for example, legal expertise. But again think carefully, if your expertise is in international litigation you may have little of direct relevance to offer, which could lead to misunderstandings with the rest of the committee.
Other useful roles you could take on? (Volunteer, adviser to staff)
It can give you a wonderful insight into the actual work on the ground of an organisation to volunteer. Do bear in mind that the two roles must be kept separate (hard in practice) and try to keep your volunteering and committee roles separate or there may be confusion with staff.
If you have a particular skill or specialist knowledge it may be useful put your knowledge at the staff’s disposal (perhaps IT skills, or HR skills). Desirable as this is there is a need to do this with care to avoid confusion about roles. Try if possible to clarify what you can offer with the chair and staff together so that there is some clarity about your role.
The AA man principle (getting advice when you need it)
You don’t need to know how to fix your car – but you do need to know someone who does. Similarly you can not be expected to know how to deal with everything in the committee – you just need to know where to get the necessary advice and when you need to go asking for it.
Dissent is healthy for democracy – conflict is unhealthy for governance
Some meetings are quiet affairs with good humoured discussion; other can be lively and even heated at times. Conflict, however, my arise suddenly or build slowly. If you find conflict is inhibiting the effectiveness of your committee you should raise it with others first (such as the chair) to check that your perceptions of the situation are shared, then seek advice (see ‘Support’ pages).
Fixed term trusteeships
If your constitution sets out a fixed term for committee members then your leaving date may be fixed, though bear in mind that many such constitutions do give you the opportunity to serve for a second consecutive term.
Deciding to leave
If your position on the committee has no fixed term of office then it is up to you (perhaps in conjunction with the chair) to decide on an end date. As a general rule it is best for your departure to coincide with the AGM and for you to give the chair plenty of notice so that there is ample time to either find a replacement or publicise the forthcoming vacancy.
If you find that your personal circumstances change and you can no longer devote the time and energy to your committee then it may be for the best to step down. Try to give as much notice as possible and at least confide in the Chair your reasons so that the committee is not left totally in the dark about the reasons for your sudden departure.
Keeping in Touch
Many ex committee members like to keep in touch, if only sporadically. Talk to the chair on your departure to let him or her know what sort of level of contact you would like to maintain. You could ask to be left on the mailing list for the newsletter, the AGM invitation list, or maybe volunteer for a special role (such as setting up a legacy fundraising campaign).