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Podcast: charity trustees' responsibilities

Last updated: 30 Sept 2019 Topics: Podcast

We discuss the relationship between charity trustees and managers and their responsibilities towards keeping children and young people safe

We end our series on protecting children and young people within the voluntary and community sector with an episode on safeguarding duties for charity trustees. 

Safeguarding duties apply to any charity that is working with or has contact with children or young people. This includes the board of charity trustees who also have a responsibility for keeping children safe and delivering safe services.

Listen to our episode for more on:

  • the responsibilities of a lead or designated trustee
  • how trustees can play an active role in safeguarding
  • why trustees and managers need to work together as a team
  • the link between good governance and safeguarding 
  • the importance of complying with legislation and guidance around keeping children safe.

This series was carried out as part of a partnership led by NCVO, funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the National Lottery Fund within the Safeguarding Training Fund programme.

This resource was supported by:

DDCMS and Community Fund logo

Meet your host

Chris Cloke was the Head of Safeguarding in Communities at the NSPCC for over thirty years.  He has a huge wealth of experience and knowledge in safeguarding, particularly within the voluntary and community sector where he has been a trustee and advisor to several voluntary groups. He has been a member of and worked closely with a number of local safeguarding children boards and was chair of the Anti-Bullying Alliance for many years.

About the speakers

Cate Meredith has been working for the NSPCC for 10 years as a Senior Consultant in our Safeguarding in Communities team. She continues to lend her expertise to organisations in the voluntary and community sector to ensure their safeguarding responsibilities are supported, understood and met, so that children and young people are safe.

Kathy Evans joined Children England in 2010 as Deputy Chief Executive and she became CEO in April 2013. During her career Kathy has been the Chair of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, a trustee of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, a member of the ACMD Hidden Harm group and DCSF Care Matters advisory group. She was also consultant to the Police Foundation and Justice, devising potential alternatives to Youth Courts, to support the Independent Commission on Youth Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour.

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Podcast transcript 

Welcome to NSPCC Learning, a series of podcasts that cover a range of child protection issues to hopefully inform, create debate and tell you all about the work we do to keep children safe. At the heart of every podcast is the child’s voice and how what they tell us informs the work we do.

Hi and welcome to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. This is the last in a series of six programmes related to safeguarding in the voluntary and community sector or VCS for short and focuses on supportive relationships between charity trustees and managers around safeguarding children.

Chris Cloke, who was until very recently the NSPCC’s Head of Safeguarding in Communities, sat down and had a chat with Kathy Evans, CEO of Children England and Cate Meredith, one of the NSPCC’s Senior Consultants in the Safeguarding in Communities Team.

Chris, Kathy and Cate discuss how the relationship between trustees and managers in keeping children safe and in delivering safe services is vital. They talk about the link between good governance and safeguarding and how being prepared can help trustees respond in the right way if things do go wrong.

Chris began by asking Cate and Kathy what they felt the responsibilities of trustees are in safeguarding children and young people.

Well trustees, of course, are the key to good governance in a charity and safeguarding is something that is very, very closely linked to good governance; that’s been a message that’s come out very, very clearly from the Charity Commission itself and from other charity regulators throughout the UK.

So, good safeguarding can’t exist without good governance and good governance can’t exist unless safeguarding is done well. And the regulators have worked hard to articulate some important things and some relevant things that charities should be doing and that boards of safeguarding should be doing around safeguarding and those are on the Charity Commission website. So that might be a good thing for people who are wanting to find out more about this to have a look at.

The things that the Charity Commission is talking about are things like having good safeguarding policies and procedures in place that all people in the organisation follow and that includes trustees as well as everybody else.

To make sure that people have regular training about child protection or about working with adults at risk if that is their main area of work; about appointing a safeguarding lead to work with their local authority safeguarding boards.

To manage issues like concerns and complaints and allegations, and incidents of whistleblowing that relate to child protection or adults at risk.

To make sure that they follow relevant legislation and guidance and to make sure that they know who their local statutory partners are, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds, particularly if a charity is a national charity rather than one that’s operating in a particular locality; so, that can be quite a challenge...

And what it says, what the Charity Commission says, is that safeguarding children duties apply to any charity that is working with or coming into contact with anyone under the age of eighteen. It’s really very clear now and what is very helpful now, on the Charity Commission website, is that some of that guidance is brought together in one place so that people can find it much more easily than they might have done in the past.

So, there’s quite a lot that trustees need to take on. It’s not something which needs to be considered lightly. Kathy, is there anything you’d add?

Yes, I think we need to recognise that trusteeship is a really important responsibility. It’s distinctive as well because charity safeguarding is a voluntary role. You undertake it as a person – not as a professional role – but you are the custodian of that charity and its reputation and the benefit that it delivers while you’re in charge as a trustee.

So trusteeship is quite a distinctive role compared with being employed for a period of time - to have a specific job. And in fact, there are quite a lot of charities where there are only trustees in terms of the responsible people. Some charities are constituted by a trustee board and perhaps, fundraising volunteers or perhaps practice volunteers, but the trustees may be the sole accountable people for the conduct of a charity.

It is a very responsible role and it can also be quite intimidating if you’ve stepped forward to be a volunteer trustee because you care about the cause. It’s important to understand these expectations but also to understand that they are deliverable. There are practical resources to help and thinking through and making sure that you’re covering your safeguarding duties actually makes the job of running the charity and delivering its benefit far better, if you like. It’s not a… nobody’s looking to catch anyone out, this is about making a better environment for everyone.

Cate, can you say a little bit more about how you think the safeguarding’ responsibilities fit with the legislative framework that trustees have to work within?

Some of the things under the Charity Act, will talk about charities making sure that its purposes are for the public benefit. So clearly, we can see that it’s not for the public benefit if safeguarding isn’t looked after properly. That they are accountable - again, that’s accountable in terms of how they look after children and young people amongst other things as well, that they’re complying with their own governing document and the law and that it’s managing its resources responsibly. So those things are within the Charity Law, but clearly also, they have a relationship with safeguarding.

It’s important that trustees think about how they comply with the law, not only in terms of what charitable legislation says, but also in terms of what legislation and guidance around keeping children and young people safe says.

Thank you, anything you’d like to add Kathy?

When we do training with trustees, we try to emphasise that all trustee boards have different levels of responsibility for the charity and complying with the law and complying with their requirements, whether that’s under Company Law, Charity Law, or a Children’s Law is essential - that’s called a fiduciary duty.

So the fiduciary duties of trustees are really important and can often spend an awful lot of board time on making sure that the finances are safe and clear and the operations of the organisation are all legal.

But there are two more levels and one is strategic and then there’s this sort of visionary - and that’s about saying, you know, we may be complying with everything, but are there ways in which we could be really improving on the minimum required by law?

Are we really probing on issues that we’re not currently able to respond to? Are children and young people in our services in need of a champion or of us to examine whether or not we should be doing something better for them that improves their safety and their wellbeing?

And then the visionary would be how are we looking to contribute to changing systems or to changing the forces which put children at risk?

So I think sometimes when you open up a conversation with trustees that’s not simply about what we have to comply with but what are we trying to achieve here in terms of public benefit - what are we hoping to make better for many children, not just the children who are with us - that can actually turn into a much more positive, inspiring conversation.

What are your thoughts about the trustee who has lead responsibility for safeguarding? Should there be a lead trustee who has that safeguarding responsibility and if so, what should be that person’s role? Cate?

I think in short, we would say that it is very helpful. Someone at the top of an organisation that takes the lead and is accountable and clearly in a charity, a trustee would be an important person to have in that kind of role.

And also, it’s part of what the regulator is saying now in their guidance. There are a lot of benefits around doing that, so it makes sure that there is somebody at that highest level in an organisation who is taking a lead on safeguarding.

And it helps to make that line of accountability very transparent and really clear, so that people coming into the organisation can see how decisions and responsibility about safeguarding goes right to the very, very top of the organisation and that there’s that clear link between safeguarding and governance.

And it’s also a good way of making sure that the management team is properly supported and that the board’s capacity to understand issues around safeguarding is strengthened.

But there are dangers as well because the temptation then is for everybody else to say, “oh, we can just forget about safeguarding because this fantastic person here is going to sort it out”. But I think generally we would say that it is a good thing, provided that the board doesn’t fall into the trap that I’ve just described.

And presumably the lead trustee needs to make clear this is something which we share amongst us. Kathy, is there anything you’d like to add?

Only that I think it does feel and generally proves quite useful to boards that we’ve worked with, to have a designated trustee for safeguarding where that is about building an ongoing relationship across the organisation.

And I recognise the risk that Cate has said, I think there are two things that come through really strongly whichever kind of organisation we’ve ever explored these things with. One is that good safeguarding practice is usually developed through conversation, not first and foremost from looking at the policies.

The policies come out of good conversation and then they are examined and explored through having a conversation. And so, if there’s a real human being on the board with whom the staff and management get to have regular good conversations with, that’s likely to be a real strength in the safeguarding habits.

The second is that word… so good safeguarding is a habit, not a sort of checklist. It’s a habit of really asking the question of are there things that we’re not looking out for, that we haven’t actually heard from children and young people?

It’s not always a good sign if you’ve had no problems to deal with. It might be a sign that people don’t feel safe to raise issues or to raise the alarm. So it’s about how regularly you go back with the habit of asking how are we doing? Are we safe and how do we know?

And so for that designated trustee, I think the most valuable thing they can do is to be the prompt for that discussion in the board on a regular basis, whether it’s a tabled item or reporting back on incidents that have happened within the year or just that question: are we too comfortable to have heard nothing and what do we need to learn about our organisation and whether there are risks that we’re not seeing?

How can the board of trustees and managers of an organisation work together to keep people - children and young people, adults - safe, Cate?

My experience sometimes is that when a manager goes to their board of trustees, the board can understandably be looking for reassurance about lots of things and one of the things that they look for reassurance about is are we doing safeguarding properly?

And the manager will say, “well yes, I think we are because we’ve got some fantastic staff” and the board will say, “oh, yes, yes, our staff are all fantastic”. “And we’ve got some great volunteers” – “oh, yes, our volunteers are all fantastic” and “we’re doing some wonderful work with our children and young people” – “oh, yes, yes, it’s wonderful work”.

But it doesn’t really, really get into anything more detailed than that or anything more challenging than that for a manager. And as a manager, that can be great sometimes because you get a really easy ride from your board of trustees and you don’t feel as though you are particularly being challenged. You feel as though you’re just being told that you’re doing great job and sent on your way.

But it’s not always the right thing for the organisation and for the children and young people who are involved with that organisation for things to be too cosy between the board and their management team. But it has to be respectful and it has to be supportive - but supportive as we know doesn’t always mean just telling everybody that what they’re doing is wonderful and not actually looking beyond that.

So I think what we’re interested in and what we’ve been having conversations with boards about, is how can the board play a much more active role and in a way, challenging role, in order to fulfil its responsibilities around safeguarding more fully, and to really satisfy itself that it is doing that properly. And that actually is much more helpful to managers really, if that is the way that it is.

So in practical terms Cate, have you got top tips for making sure that this relationship is working well?

Yes, we’ve got… I mean we have ideas about some of the things that we’ve found do work well and I’m sure that Kathy has some ideas as well. I think one of the things for trustees is actually to know their organisation well, to know the things that their organisation is doing well and the things that their organisation is maybe doing less well.

And I think as Kathy said, not necessarily to have impossible expectations of themselves - that everything absolutely has to be perfect and if it isn’t perfect, then it’s a complete disaster. Because organisations are not perfect beasts, they have things that they’re good at and they have things that need improving upon and safeguarding is one of those things really – that bits of it will be good and bits of it won’t be so good.

And rather than being really frightened about finding out what the less good things are, it’s good to know what some of those vulnerabilities are and what some of those risks are. And the more that trustees know that and can look at it in a clear-sighted way, then the safer that organisation is paradoxically. So that’s one thing I would say about trustees really getting to know their organisation well.

I also think that one of the most useful things that many trustee boards have decided to do, after I’ve done training with them, is to force themselves to confront one of the things that they’re most frightened of happening but together as a trustee board - as a team.

So, they may be very confident in the day-to-day practice of the organisation, but have an idea of something that they wouldn’t know how to be prepared for or they’ve seen happen to another charity and it would keep them awake at night.

And it can be a useful exercise to get the whole team of trustees to work through… as a role-play – in real-time. Let’s imagine that that happened. What do we do? Who’s doing what? What do the policies say? Who are we going to have to speak to first? How would we approach this part of dealing with the process? Would we or wouldn’t we make press statements? Would we or wouldn’t we disclose information?

The second thing that… once that teamwork has happened and with or without a designated trustee for safeguarding is to think about what habits the board needs within its meeting schedule. So does it need standing items? Does that need to be every time they meet or is it an annual thing? It’s not that there is a fixed way of doing it, but if good safeguarding is a habit, what habit does the trustee board need to build in?

And then the same principle goes for the relationship between a lead trustee and a lead manager. What habits do they want to have; do they want to meet monthly; do they want to go through sort of an audit - a checklist process - to keep themselves on top of things?

There may be very well-developed policy and practice guidance for the organisation, but when was it last looked at? And are there other issues emerging that NSPCC keeps everyone so well-briefed about, but we haven’t thought about in this organisation? So habits and routines but thought about in the collective and then in duality.

Those are great ideas and it’s obviously something which both trustees and managers can work on together.

Yeah, absolutely.

A very good way forward. Apart from the responsibilities to beneficiaries, what other safeguarding responsibilities do trustees have? Cate, do you want to have a go at that?

Yes, I think we focus very much on responsibilities to beneficiaries which obviously is a very, very important area of responsibility for trustees and for charities. But it can be easy to forget that those responsibilities around safeguarding do extend much more broadly than that.

So charities also have responsibilities to their staff and their volunteers, for example, they have to provide safe environments for those staff and those volunteers. They have to make sure that they look after them and train them properly and enable them to do their jobs properly and supervise and manage them.

Obviously the trustees don’t do that directly, but the charity has to do that and they have responsibilities to members of the public as well. That’s one that in my experience trustees are sometimes a bit less aware of.

And even those who perhaps are visitors and people that they come into contact with less frequently, who might come, I don’t know, to an open day or get involved with them on a much more casual basis - they have responsibilities to those as well.

There’s been a lot of stories and things like that in the media as well over recent years, around fundraising and responsibilities that charities have to donors and people who give them money, to make sure that they do that in an ethical way and that they don’t exploit people. And there have been some really awful stories about people who have wanted to give money to a charity, who have been exploited in that way.

And then also, I think one of the more tricky things for charities, is to think not just about things that they are doing directly themselves, but where the supply chain is more complicated and maybe they’re subcontracting some of their responsibilities and their work to other people who are not their employees for example or not their volunteers.

And what is happening, for example… can they be sure that the money that they have is being spent in the way that they are hoping and expecting that it is being spent, for example.

My experience of working with the NSPCC over many years on the standards that were developed, that came from the voluntary sector in the first place, in terms of what good practice looks like - the six standards.

My experience is that a proper understanding and implementation of those six standards will go a very long way to make an organisation safe for its staff and its volunteers and the people who engage with it too - with the caveat that nowhere is perfectly safe as we said.

So, for example, there is a strong emphasis on good quality supervision of all staff and volunteers in keeping children and young people safe. If you’re doing that and those supervisions are places where concerns are raised, whatever they might be, and people feel safe to raise those concerns and they get acted on, discussed, taken wherever they should; that’s the same forum in which I think, most people would raise or not if it’s not working, issues about harassment or bullying or inequality in how they’re being treated.

And I think that there’s a great emphasis in the standards that the NSPCC developed and have checklists for on how you make sure that people understand - so visitors, children and young people, parents. If you’ve made sure that people understand the commitment to them feeling safe and what to do if you’re not feeling safe; how to complain; how to make a representation; who to speak to.

Well if you’re going out of your way to put your willingness to hear criticism or willingness to hear sensitive information out there, then I think that’s an indicator that you’re a caring, humane organisation that wants to hear that, however difficult.

And so, while it’s probably not sufficient to say a good charity for safeguarding children is therefore fine in every other respect, but it’s a really good indication of the mindset and the responsibility that an organisation takes.

And if you’ve got that commitment at heart then doing some of the other things, like thinking about the partners that you’re partnering with and whether or not they present any risk or the figureheads and the associations and the ways in which you communicate for fundraising - all of these should be consistent with the attitude that you’ve adopted in a commitment to keep children and young people safe.

Cate, could you say something a little bit more about the standards which Kathy has just referred to and how they can be used?

Yes, this is a resource that as Kathy says has been around for a while now and was very much developed. The NSPCC took the lead on putting it together but it was very much a collective activity by the voluntary and community sector itself, working with children and young people.

Thinking about how can we find a way of describing what a charity looks like or what a charity is doing that is doing well with safeguarding. And the idea is that it’s something that an organisation can do a bit at a time. There isn’t… obviously, it’s lovely if you can be completely compliant all the time, but that’s quite a hard thing to do and it’s one of those things where you probably never get to the stage where everything is in place all the time, but it’s a kind of, as we say, it’s a standard - it’s something to hold up as where you’re trying to get to.

And also, the way in which the standards are laid out and they’re all broken down into little elements. You can see where your practice is quite strong and where maybe you’ve got more work to do and there is a lot of support behind the standards. So it can help you with the things that you identify as being things that you’re not so good at and need to do more work on.

It’s not necessarily the case that all six will apply to every charity in exactly the same way or at all in some cases. But the process of going through them is incredibly powerful in a way of kind of just refining everyone’s understanding - this is what we do. We do have to do something here but we don’t do that.

And so, I think it just reeled home for me that what good safeguarding looks like for your charity, might not look the same exactly as the other charity. But it will have consistent themes, one of them being conversations, working through scenarios and having healthy habits.

But don’t necessarily look to another charity and say, “oh my goodness, they’ve got these kinds of posts and fulltime employees who work on safeguarding and if we haven’t got that, maybe we’re not safe” and that’s not the case.

The best way to safeguard your charity is something that you have to decide as a charity and that’s where the trustees have a particularly important responsibility.

I think this does relate to what we’ve been saying Kathy, but how does the board, the board of trustees, keep children and young people at the centre of their thinking about safeguarding?

In some organisations, they’ve gone a really long way as having children and young people’s advisory groups to safeguarding or as certainly our board does and I think many boards try to do, reserve a space in every meeting to raise and explore issues outside of the organisation that are emerging for children and young people and to have a board discussion about whether it relates to or prompts anything for your charity.

I think there’s no fixed answer about this. If putting children and young people into your board itself would be tokenistic then that doesn’t achieve anything substantial and it may make that experience very uncomfortable for those children and young people.

But there are many different creative ways that an organisation can make sure that it either gathers evidence and examples of what children and young people are saying and the Children’s Commissioner, and all sorts of organisations regularly put out evidence of what children and young people are most concerned about.

You could have a commitment to bring those into the meeting and to make sure that they’re considered.

Thank you very much indeed.


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