Charity Trustees: What to ask during Covid-19

6th May, 2020

If you’re  a charity trustee at the moment, you might well be asking yourself how the Covid-19 disruption affects your role, and how best you can support your organisation during this stormy time.  Intended just for this period, here are a few pointers to help steer the ship.

The first thing to remember is that you’re not alone, and that there is a range of resources already available to you that will help frame your own response.  CO3 is a good start.

Second – Your executive team will be under pressure.  You need to be supportive, and help them check they’ve covered all the bases on protecting beneficiaries, staff, and finding cost reductions as well as maintaining income.

Here are some risks to think about ahead of your next board meeting:

Beneficiaries Protection

Some charities will be in a position where it’s not safe for their beneficiaries to receive the face to face help they have become accustomed to.  Make sure your executive team has explained to you how it has prioritised the continuation (or suspension) of services to those beneficiaries; what conditions will be required for services to return to normal; and what downsides there might be to any new arrangements, as well as the upsides.  (For instance, there’s a big debate about the pros and cons of videoconferenced counselling going on at the moment.)

You’ll also want to satisfy yourself that the beneficiaries, particularly those said to be more vulnerable to the virus through age or ill-health, aren’t being exposed to unmanaged risks of home visitations from the organisation’s staff or volunteers.

Staff Protection

If around 60% of charities operate in a health and social care capacity, they in particular will want to make sure their staff are safe too.  Most organisations will have planned out how they’ll deliver service continuity, where that continuity is absolutely essential.  You’ll need to be supportive in ensuring the board is satisfied that those risks on the front line are being managed, and that the organisation has the means by which to protect them.

Longer term, you may be thinking about how you might support your executive team in addressing the consequences of less socialised working, and managing the effects of the transition to more isolated working on mental and physical health.

Sustainability

Overall, your organisation needs a financial plan that accounts for a number of potential future scenarios.  You won’t need to ask for War and Peace, but it does need to have different scenarios to cover some of the main uncertainties – like ‘when will we restore our normal services?’, ‘when can we start counting on some proper income again?’.

Reserves are partly there for a rainy day, and it’s been pouring down since March.  You’ll need to take care to focus on only releasing those reserves that aren’t restricted, and which don’t form part of a permanent endowment.  To tap into restricted resources intended for other purposes would need explicit, legally watertight permissions from the funder, assuming you had agreed with your board collectively that a request to do so needed to be made.

Where multiple donors have contributed to a specific, restricted funds project, Charity Commission NI have already explained they’ll be ‘proportionate’ in their view of the need to redeploy these as long as there’s been adequate communication to donors to explain any change of fund deployment.

Your executive team should by now have explored the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to allow paid staff to go on furlough, when their work has dried up as a consequence of the virus. The team will also need to be on top of other statutory help available. Some charities will be conducting activities that don’t get them out of rates liability, but LPS are running the government’s Hardship Rate Relief Scheme.  Similarly, know that VAT payments can be deferred (at time of publication), and HMRC are running a Time to Pay scheme tailored to specific organisations that may already be at the point of financial distress.

Charity Commission NI have been working very hard to keep on top of developments, and have a really helpful list of potential funders who can help your executive team here:

https://www.charitycommissionni.org.uk/charity-essentials/covid-19-guidance/covid-19-guidance-for-charities/#SUPPORT

Governance

You still need to operate within the parameters of your objects.  So if you’re in business to help people with specific conditions or in a specific local area, part of the board’s role is to make sure you continue to do so.  If, during Covid-19, there are gaps in the provision of help outside your defined beneficiaries, and no other organisation is better placed to fill those gaps, you may want to consider the extent to which you can ‘flex’ the interpretation of your objects to account for that extra work. Harriet Whitehead from the Charity Commission for England and Wales helpfully points out that “a charity with an objective to advance religion may be able to offer support as part of its pastoral work. Or an arts charity might help relieve isolation through its online work”.

Reassuringly, she joins Charity Commissions from across the UK in making the special point that they will be as pragmatic and flexible as possible.  You should be too.

Patrick Minne

Director, Engage Executive Talent

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