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Charity trusteeship: what's it all about?

Peter McCrea crop

I am writing this during half-term, sitting in a converted barn in the Kentish countryside, benefitting from the natural tendency when away from work to pause for reflection. It was suggested that, as chair of LionHeart, I might write a blog to coincide with Trustees' Week in November.  At the time, this seemed very timely, but perhaps the fact that I am away from normal routine makes the article more contemplative than might normally be the case.

Starting from first principles, what is the role of a charity trustee? My online dictionary describes a person or member of a board given powers of administration of property in trust with a legal obligation to administer it solely for purposes specified. So far so good, assuming that the assets of LionHeart can be considered property.

But what "purposes specified"?  My next reference point is LionHeart's "objects", as defined in our Articles of Association. These describe the prevention or relief from poverty, or the relief of beneficiaries who are in need by reason of youth, age, ill health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage.  The beneficiaries of LionHeart are current or former Chartered Surveyors, their spouses or partners, widows or widowers, or their dependents.

So in addition to our statutory duties as company directors, the role of the board of trustees is to have a non-operational strategic overview of the organisation, in the guise, which will be familiar to anyone who has been, say, a school governor, of a critical friend.

However at LionHeart there is a twist - the trustees are almost all Chartered Surveyors, giving an extra fraternal or sororal element to our work. There is a real sense of linkage between the trustees and the beneficiaries of the charity.

There is also a sense of heritage - LionHeart is nearly as old as the RICS - and my colleagues and I are all conscious that we are holding the baton at the moment, hoping not to let down either our many prestigious predecessors or the surveyors of the future.    

The nature of the organisation has changed and adapted with the times, and will continue to do so.  We have not, for many years, simply been effectively a bank or grant-awarding body.

The focus has for some time been on preventative, proactive work, still including financial issues but encompassing so much more, from mental health to retirement planning, to support through long-term serious illnesses including cancer.

You will forgive me if I also spend a moment to dispel the common myth that we are sitting on such a large amount of cash that we do not need to fundraise.

It is true that we are much more fortunate than many charities in similar fields. Our assets are currently in the region of £20m. But this significant amount is used for one important thing - to generate much needed income. 

To put the figures into context, last year we spent £1.8m on operational activities, but only raised £600K from member subscriptions (pausing there - have you ticked the box on your annual return?), making up the remainder by income from capital.  At the risk of bordering on triteness, every penny we don't receive in donations or subscriptions is a penny we can't spend on the profession. This deficit will only increase - our new strategic plan assumes a year on year growth in expenditure and the expansion of services.

I mentioned earlier our non-operational role, but it should not be thought that this means remoteness. For instance, the trustees work in pairs to carry out biannual random audits of case files (right).

I'm sure my colleagues would agree that, of all our duties as trustees, this exercise is the most effective in shining a light on the front line of the work which our staff carry out in helping surveyors or their families, often in times of crisis or circumstances of absolute despair. 

I have never driven away from an audit day without more than a tinge of emotion coupled with pride that our staff have made a difference to someone's life. 

It is this that drives us as a board of trustees. I am proud to be able to glance around the table and know that every one of us is there, not as a reason to fill a CV or to be seen to be doing something, but with a real sense of duty and obligation to help the profession. And this sense permeates through the whole of the organisation: every one of our fabulous staff team take a real pride in their work. 

So as I glance outside at the chickens wandering around the hop yard, I am pleased to report that LionHeart is in good health, but the Trustees are not complacent, and we look forward to overseeing the next stage of the organisation's development, before passing the baton on to the next generation.

Peter McCrea FRICS was appointed chair of the LionHeart board in October 2018, after 18 months as a trustee. A father-of-two, he became the youngest ever appointed surveyor member of the Lands Tribunal in 2013.

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