Being a charity trustee: what to consider and how to find the right role

For Trustees Week, Rebecca McCartney, Investment Director at Big Society Capital and trustee at UK Youth, shares her top tips for finding a trustee role, where to search and advice on applying to be one.


Written by

Rebecca MacDonald, Managing Director, Head of Investment Management

I’m a trustee of UK Youth which is a leading national charity focused on empowering young people to build bright futures irrespective of their backgrounds or circumstances. Growing up as an under confident young person in a disadvantaged area of northern England, I’ve benefited significantly from similar programmes that UK Youth runs. When the trustee role was advertised, I jumped at the opportunity to contribute my social investment skills and lived experience to UK Youth so that other young people can be inspired to believe anything is possible.

Since becoming a trustee two years ago, I’ve been asked many times for advice on what to think about as people begin to search for roles themselves. Below is a collection of the top tips I’ve given and gathered from others over the years.

What to consider before you start your search

  1. Social cause – Try to hone in on a social cause you’re passionate about as this is often the key determinant of whether a trustee role feels worthwhile. This is often because you’ll feel more connected to the decisions a board takes on issues that can feel far removed from the charity’s frontline social impact.
  2. Specialist skills – Think about whether you have any specialist skills that you can bring to a trustee board so you can find roles where you will have the greatest value add. This will also help you filter roles as charities will often be explicit about what they’re looking for.
  3. Time commitment – The ask of trustees varies quite considerably. I find that larger or well established charities will tend to have lighter touch governance with 5 board meetings a year and maybe a strategy day, whereas smaller charities may be looking for more hands on support. In both cases, there may be opportunities to get involved in board sub-committees or ad hoc project groups. For example, I’m on UK Youth’s finance committee and currently helping to select a new Investment Manager for UK Youth’s reserves. What time you can give and in turn what a charity expects of its trustee should be considered early.
  4. New trustees – If you haven’t been a trustee before and/or are early in your career as I was, I found small organisations were more open to trustees with limited governance experience. However there is an increased move from larger organisations to increase the diversity of their Board, which is supported by initiatives such as Young Trustees.
  5. Learning – Becoming a trustee is a great learning opportunity. Have a think about what you want to get out of being a trustee as this will help guide you towards opportunities and put you in good stead throughout any application process.

Where to look for trustee roles

UK Youth is a leading national charity, committed to providing access to appropriate, high quality services in every community so that young people are empowered to build bright futures, regardless of their background or circumstances.

I found my role for UK Youth through Charity Jobs and was lucky that it came up early on in my search. But it can take much longer to find a good match. A number of my colleagues searched for 12-18 months before finding the right role. Therefore, I suggest you don’t rush the process and take your time. Finding a good match is worth the wait.

Once you know the social cause you want to support and the skills and time you can commit, there are three main ways to find trustee roles: 

  1. Search on sites that list trustee roles, for example: Reach Volunteering, Charity Jobs, the Guardian Jobs or Small Charities Coalition.
  2. Join a recruitment agency that matches individuals and charities such as Trustees Unlimited.
  3. Actively seek out opportunities by going direct to an organisation, whether that’s in your local community or by searching for an organisation that shares your passion for a social cause.

Applying for a trustee role

When you’ve found a role that is a good match, you’ll often be asked to submit a cover letter and CV and then interviews of the shortlisted candidates will follow. Best practice for job applications apply here too, but I’d suggest the following emphasis:

  • Focus on why the social cause is important to you personally;
  • Show empathy for the people the organisation is supporting;
  • Be clear what your value add can be to the organisation to help it deliver its mission;
  • Show you’re open to learning.

After this you and the organisation will work out whether it’s a good match.

Make a difference by volunteering

Being a trustee is a valuable way to volunteer your time and make a difference to a cause you’re passionate about. But it’s also a great opportunity for personal development. For me, being a trustee gave me a better understanding of governance and charity finances. It also allowed me to play an active role in issues that are really close to my heart.

More information about becoming a trustee

Visit Trustees Week for more information on what being a trustee involves. You’ll also find useful training and resources for budding trustees.