08 February 2024

The crucial role of trustees in UK charities

Trustees play a pivotal role in the charity sector, with responsibility for shaping strategy, designing programmes with impact and monitoring governance says Alex Green, the Vice Chair of the Chapter One Board

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According to the UK Charity Commission’s 2022/23 annual report there were over 925,000 trustees serving on the boards of 168,893 charities. Most are volunteers, who give their time freely, taking on much the same fiduciary responsibilities as their counterparts on public and private company boards. Trustees play a pivotal role in the charity sector, with the responsibility for shaping strategy, designing programmes with impact and monitoring governance for their respective organisations to ensure that they effectively fulfil their mission and serve their beneficiaries.

Over the last couple of years I have been a trustee of Chapter One. In the charity's first five years of operation in the UK, it has supported over 5,500 primary school children in this mission. In 2024, we will be presenting our next five year strategy, whereby in 2029 we aspire to be helping 4 times more than that number each year. Whilst it’s an ambitious target, what drives us forward is the knowledge that it still represents less than half the children in the UK who each year struggle to read at the right level. A child who does not make the timely transition from confidently learning to read to ‘reading to learn’ is estimated to have their average lifetime earnings potential impacted by around £57,000. Ultimately, it costs the economy billions of pounds in lost productivity. At Chapter One, our board of trustees are passionate about addressing this inequality.

At the core of Chapter One’s offering is our online reading volunteer programme that pairs a child each week with a volunteer to listen to them read for 30 minutes. It is already a very effective and innovative platform that reduces the barriers to volunteer participation. We are indebted to our corporate partners who provide both the funds and online volunteers. However, to reach our targeted number of children we must find more ways to increase our volunteer base, both safely and at lower cost.

Chapter One is an organisation built on research and development with innovation at its heart. For example, we are currently testing the use of ‘high impact’ phonics in the UK, following the successful trials by our US sister charity where they have demonstrated that consistent use of short, individually tailored bursts of phonics teaching can have an outsized effect on children’s ability to read. We set up a pilot in the UK in 2022/23 (see page 30 of our latest Impact Report) which confirms some of the US findings, but because of the small sample size we need to build on those results before looking at ways to expand the programme.

A lot of children in the UK don’t own a book. Many of our volunteers, their organisations and other charities kindly donate books to several of the schools we work with. But the Chapter One platform also includes a Global Free Library with an expanding catalogue of age and context appropriate books to capture the reading enjoyment of children everywhere. We have stories contributed from various sources including those authored by our own volunteers.

As trustees we have to balance strategy with governance. As Chapter One grows our changing context presents dynamic challenges. Overall, we must safeguard the children and schools we work with, the reputation of our volunteers and the companies they work for and the wellbeing and safety of our amazing staff. These risks are not static but constantly change as Chapter One scales. Five years ago our revenue was £179,883. Today, our revenue approaches £1 million per year, in the top 5% of all charities. When we match our aspirations, we will be managing multiple times that revenue. The Board has to find the equilibrium between its mission and impact with fiscal prudence. The sum of the parts must add up to public trust and reputation.

The trustees’ role is multifaceted. They provide leadership and strategic direction, setting goals and overseeing their implementation. As custodians of the charity's assets and resources they are responsible for strong governance around the way they are managed making sure they are used effectively and ethically. Our trustees act as ambassadors for Chapter One, advocating for its mission, values, and its impact within their own and Chapter One’s stakeholder communities.

We are always looking for trustees. Whilst we are delighted to receive all applications, we would be particularly interested in those from applicants with front line primary education experience and those with strategic digital experience. A comprehensive Trustee Recruitment Pack is available on the Chapter One website here. If you would like an informal conversation about applying to be a Chapter One trustee, please contact Rebecca Yeadon at rebecca.yeadon@chapterone.org.

Alex Green is an experienced global business leader and non-executive director who divides his time between board work, academia, angel investing and the third sector. He is currently a director of Starboard Tack Property Services Ltd, a start-up property development business, and is conducting doctoral research in Economic History at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

It all starts with literacy