Voluntary Sector Support Guidance

The role of trustees

What does a trustee do?

Trustees collectively decide how the organisation is run and keep the organisation on track to achieve its aims. Trustees play a very important role, and are almost always unpaid.

Trustees are sometimes known as committee members, directors or governors depending on the organisation’s structure. Being a trustee can be an extremely rewarding, working with other like-minded people to support the work of the organisation.

The NCVO estimate that there are 580,000 trustees in the UK, underpinning the work of a hugely valuable sector.

Trustees and the law

When learning about the role of trustees, there are things trustees “must” do, and others trustees “should” do.

  • "Must" is a legal requirement
  • "Should" is generally considered to be best practice

The following is a useful extract from the Charity Commission’s Essential Trustee Guide.

The Charity Commission expects trustees to take their responsibilities seriously. The commission recognises that most trustees are volunteers who sometimes make honest mistakes. Trustees are not expected to be perfect – they are expected to do their best to comply with their duties. Charity law generally protects trustees who have acted honestly and reasonably.

Trustee duties

In brief, trustees have six main duties as outlined in the Charity Commission’s Essential Trustee Guide.

These are to:

  • Ensure the organisation is carrying out its purposes for the public benefit;
  • Comply with the organisation’s governing document and the law;
  • Act in the organisation’s best interest;
  • Manage the organisation’s resources responsibly;
  • Act with reasonable care and skill; and
  • Ensure the organisation is accountable.

How many trustees do I need?

Your organisation should have at least three trustees, usually a Chair, a Secretary and a Treasurer.

Your governing document will set out the minimum and maximum number you need. If you’re starting out writing your governing document, try not to have too many trustees. Instead, think about a smaller number of key people and their relevant skills to support
the organisation: between three and six is ideal. It is also best practice for trustees to be unrelated to each other and not live at the same address.

Criteria to become a trustee

All trustees should be appointed in accordance with your organisation’s governing document. There are a couple of key criteria you need to be aware of before someone can become a trustee:

  • A Charity trustee must be over 18, or over 16 for CIOs and charitable companies.
  • Ensure that the individual has not been disqualified under the Charities Act including if they have any unspent convictions.

How long can a trustee be in post?

The length of time a trustee can remain in post should also be stated in your governing document. The governing document should also state whether a trustee can be reappointed after their term ends.


It is very important to have an appropriate legal structure in place to underpin the work of the organisation.

The structure should reflect the work of the organisation taking into account whether staff are employed or if contracts are taken on. There is some excellent guidance on the Bates, Wells Braithwaite website outlining legal structures including a decision tool which will guide you through potential options.

There are occasions when trustees could be held personally liable, i.e. if they cause financial loss by acting unduly. Trustees should be mindful of this and act responsibly in order to best protect both the organisation and themselves. That said, the law generally protects trustees where they have acted “honestly and reasonably”.

You can read more about trustees and liability in the Charity Commission’s Essential Trustee Guide.


Recruiting trustees should be an ongoing piece of work for your organisation.

As your organisation changes or grows you might need to bring different skills into the organisation to best support you. In addition, the governing document often sets out the length of service for trustees so it’s important to bear this in mind and look to recruit potential new trustees on an ongoing basis. Recruiting people with the right skills and experience to deliver the organisation’s aims and objectives is really important.

Be mindful when approaching potential volunteers to support you, some people could be cautious about the time involved or the commitment they would need to make. When you’re looking to recruit a volunteer, think about what you need from them and try to be descriptive about the role.

Reach Volunteering has created a very useful Guide to recruiting and retaining trustees.

The following websites are good sources of further information about trustees,