Could you be a charity trustee?

As Trustees’ Week is underway (November 7-11), we want to celebrate the talented group of individuals that make up our board of trustees. Sue Beardsmore, chair of trustees, explains what the role is – and why it is so rewarding.

What attracted you to being chair of trustees at Birmingham Botanical Gardens? 
Birmingham Botanical Gardens is a great treasure, in need of help, and I’ve been a member for more than 30 years. The Gardens are nearly 200 years old, but if they’re to survive into a third century they need huge support and a lot of work. We’ve just been awarded a National Lottery Heritage Fund development grant to make plans for a project to save the Gardens – but that’s just the start.  Trustees support an institution and its staff, and try to help find a way through challenges. I felt I had some of the experience that would help – so I applied for the role, and was selected.

Why is the role of trustee so important? 
Trustees bring their life experience, their professional experience and their commitment to a board.  They are all volunteers so the value of that ‘free’ input is incalculable; if charities had to pay for what volunteers, of all sorts, bring, it would be tough for them to survive. Trustees, as a board, challenge and support the staff, and have oversight of what the charity is doing, making sure it fulfils its aims and is viable.

How does the Gardens benefit from the involvement of you and the board of trustees? 
We have fantastic trustees, all with a wide range of experience in commerce and business, marketing, horticulture, community activities and education. Along with the chief executive (Sara Blair-Manning) and her team, that experience is used to set the vision and aims for the Gardens. Specific skills can really help at specific times. For example, one of our trustees has significant experience in building and surveying, and his advice will be hugely helpful in developing our project to restore the listed buildings at the Gardens

What is the day-to-day role of the trustees?

Trustees sit on a variety of committees – for example overseeing finance, horticulture, education, operations and marketing – and they review plans, ask questions, challenge and support. Those committees meet at least four times a year and feed into the full board, which also meets a minimum of four times a year.

There is an AGM once a year for all members to review the annual report and to ask questions. But there’s plenty more to do: in between meetings trustees may help with professional advice, if it is appropriate; they may help by sitting on interview panels to make appointments, if their experience is suitable; they also advocate for the Gardens by meeting and talking to people, and help to make sure people know what’s going on.

It’s always important to remember that if you are a trustee, you’re not there to run the organisation. The role is often described as that of a ‘critical friend’. Both parts of that phrase matter. You’re not there just to criticise, or just to cheerlead. A sensible head and a good heart are important.

What qualities does a trustee need to make a real difference to an organisation? 
An ability to listen, to question, to care and to learn, and to work collaboratively. Although the Nolan Principles are regarded as the basics for roles in government and public bodies, they’re important for people involved in any kind of trustee or governance role.

What really helps a trustee board is having a wide range of people, so different views and experience are being fed into an organisation, as well as the right skills. That may mean people sometimes disagree, but it’s important to be able to discuss and assess different views courteously, remembering the organisation is more important than any one person.

You get a lot out of being a trustee, especially somewhere like Birmingham Botanical Gardens. You only have to take a walk through the glasshouses and the grounds to remember why you’re involved. It’s a magical place, born out of a vision, and it’s more important now than ever to keep that alive. As trustees, we’ll do our best to help.