When Should Trustees Resign?

This article was originally written by Leon Ward on CharityConnect.

In December 2015 I resigned from the board of Plan UK. I had been a trustee for five years and was involved in the organisation for nine years. That represents a significant chunk of my life considering I turned 24 in the same month; which makes retiring even more peculiar!

In December 2016, the co-founder of CoppaFeel! Decided to stand-down as Chief Executive to avoid ‘founder syndrome’. Some of her points resonate with the reasons I stepped down as a trustee; I thought it would be useful to share the reasons that we should all ask ourselves, from time to time.

Five years is a good stretch

It’s quite an achievement; and one that I am proud of. In that time I was part of a huge digital needs review, of recruiting the majority of current trustees, the not-so-new Chief Executive and the merging of another charity into Plan UK. On top of that, I worked hard to develop a model of engaging young trustees that could work in our other offices.

Many of the charities national offices now have young trustees – and young people are present at the Members’ Assembly – the charity is a federation and this is their highest governing board. All of that compounded with usual board matters means that I saw a lot of change in those five years. Change which I had been a part of to improve the organisation and change which would drive the organisation forward; in some ways, it felt very much like ‘job done’.

It was time to give up the seat for someone else

For those of us that advocate and champion diversity, there is a challenge to ourselves to ensure we ‘own’ what we preach. I had developed a good enough skill set and understanding of charity governance at Plan UK whilst simultaneously completing a lot of work, and these factors combined meant it was time for me to pass the baton on. In 2015, I published the best practice guide on young trustees and within it, I mentioned a similar point. It is for us to move on and allow our space to be filled by someone else, rather than hogging space at the board.

Boards often need refreshing

Trustee terms of office are a guide and not a challenge. You don’t have to sit for your full two or three terms, and boards shouldn’t always have to wait for a forced resignation to have a refresh.

Of course, it is a challenge for any of us to say ‘I am not what this board needs, now’ but it’s crucial that the charity has a fit for purpose board, at all times and it is our duty to ensure we act in the best interests of the charity. At Plan UK, the board is largely a ‘new’ board but with enough institutional history to strike that critical balance, I think any new Chair wants to come in, look at the skills around them and then consider recruiting new trustees.

It’s a much nicer position for Chairs if they have spaces to fill rather than having to think about who to replace.

There are plenty of other opportunities

The UK is lucky to have a strong and diverse civil society sector. There are always organisations looking for trustees, and the ones closer to home (by that, I mean your local community) often struggle to recruit talented trustees.

In addition, for our own career development it is important to push boundaries, try new challenges and pursue interests we are passionate about but have not contributed to; trusteeship allows us to fulfil all of this. There is a training element to this – the wider your non-executive experience is, the better a trustee you will become. You’ll have the ability to grasp challenges of a different nature, to see the difference between small and large charities and the difference between those with lots of and with little unrestricted income, those that have diverse boards, proactive boards and lazy boards – all of this exposure helps us be better at our role; and gives us the opportunity, then, to improve governance in the sector, more generally.

When a decision is morally incompatible with what you believe in

To be clear, this is not what happened at Plan UK; but is something I often get asked ‘what can you do if you totally disagree with a boards stance?’.

Trustee boards are teams. You may disagree with whatever you like in the board room, and you can use board procedures to shape, change and debate ideas, but as soon as you step out of that board room than you are bound by collective responsibility. You toe the line and you publicly agree with the decisions that have been made; you don’t brief against them and you don’t undermine the board. However, if a decision is made that is incompatible with your own moral positioning then you are empowered to resign from the board citing that as the reason.

Beyond the board

So, I leave you with those reflections and with a challenge: as we transition into a new year, ask yourself (and even ask your Chair!) whether what you offer is what the board needs right now, whether or not you can comfortably affirm that it is ‘job done’ and you’ve seen through the change you identified.

For those of you reading this who are not yet trustees, your challenge is to seriously consider it and put yourself forward to become one!

Tags: charity governance, charity trustee, running your charity, trustee board

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About the author

Anna Bland

Anna previously worked for CharityConnect, our online community for charity professionals. She’s passionate about women’s rights, loves documentaries and drinking excessive amounts of tea.