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Case study – Tim O’Brien talks about becoming a trustee

Written by: Tim O'Brien
Published on: 11 Dec 2017

Hands doing craft

Pic: Anna Shvets, Pexels

I retired in 2013. Prior to that I worked for Shell in the UK for over 30 years, mostly located in London with a short spell in exotic Welwyn Garden City. My career included commercial management, economics, M&A, all kinds of accounting, and risk management. It took in large businesses and small “start-up” organisations and plenty of travel.

Arts 4 Dementia is a small charity (turnover £100k) with two employees. The charity focuses on the benefit of arts activities for people living with dementia in the community in particular, rather than hospitals and care homes. Dynamic involvement in arts-related activities has been shown to significantly alleviate symptoms, to re-energise and inspire people in the early stages of dementia so that they can enjoy greater freedom and independence and remain in their home environment.

It runs arts workshops for people with dementia and trains artists and facilitators to work with them. It also aims to develop best practice and promote this in the NHS, and to government and arts organisations.

What motivated you to offer your skills as a volunteer?

I looked to voluntary roles to use and maintain my professional skills, do something “useful” to justify my existence after a fulfilling career, and to give something back to the community.

What does your volunteering role involve?

I joined in September 2015 as a trustee and honorary treasurer. The original commitment was one day a month for accounting, which is done in a spreadsheet, plus six Board meetings a year.  In reality, as well as producing monthly management accounts, annual budgets and the draft annual report, I am involved in developing strategy, policy documents on varied topics like data protection and privacy, conflicts of interest and related parties as well as financial policy and procedures. I also advise and mentor the Chief Executive on anything that he wants help with, so my commitment is probably 1-2 days a week.    

What have you found to be most rewarding about being a trustee?

Being able to help a worthy cause. It is also very satisfying to see how your experience and skills are valued in a small organisation!

What are the key challenges your trustee board has faced?

The relationship between staff and trustees. As a small organisation trustees can easily get very involved in providing advice and a helping hand which is necessary for the charity to work, but does not help them maintain independence and oversight (the opposite can also be true: they may not get involved enough).

What would you say to someone who is thinking of becoming a charity trustee?

Just do it, but be clear about your commitment.  As “finance” trustee it is easy to find yourself as the only person with wide commercial experience and to be expected to contribute more than you may have expected.   Other trustees come to rely on you.

Complete the sentence: A charity trustee is…

a friend and advisor to senior management, but must also maintain independence to ensure that he or she can provide effective oversight and ensure effective governance.