Boardroom meeting with photo taken looking through a glass wall, with male and female colleagues sitting inside

How professional body trustees can demonstrate public benefit

By Lindsay Driscoll, Consultant

Events in the last couple of years have led to increased scrutiny of charities, particularly of their governance. This scrutiny affects all charities and there is now more weight attached to the legal duties of charity trustees.

What are trustees’ duties?

The primary duty of charity trustees is to:

  1. Ensure that the charity is carrying out its purposes or objects for the public benefit. This means that they must be able to demonstrate a benefit which is for all the public, or a sufficient section of the public. Any personal or private benefit must be incidental and the balance must always be in favour of public benefit.
  2. Act in the best interest of the charity only. Trustees are not there to represent the interests of those who elected or appointed them. Any conflicts of interest – that is where a trustee has a financial interest, or a conflict of loyalties, or where they have a duty of loyalties – must be eliminated or managed. They need to demonstrate that any conflict did not affect decision-making.
  3. Ensure that the charity is accountable. This means that trustees must ensure accountability, not only to members, but to others with an interest in the charity.

The challenge for professional bodies

Membership charities, particularly professional bodies, have specific challenges when seeking to comply with these trustee duties such as:

  1. They need to be alert to the need to maintain the appropriate balance between public and private benefit and assess their plans and activities in this light.
  2. They need to manage conflicts of interest and loyalty and ensure that all decisions are made in the interest of the charity and its beneficiaries only.

We must also remember that it is not only the role of trustees to demonstrate that their organisation is acting in the public benefit. For the Science Council this is manifested in its membership criteria, as one of the criteria is that an organisation must have in its objectives the practice of the profession in the interest of the public as well as its own members.

The changing charity landscape has therefore led many membership charities to consider the role of its members in governance and have subsequently moved away from a representative board elected from the membership, to a board made up of trustees appointed for their skills, knowledge and experience.

Lindsay presented on the topic of public benefit at a recent Council Meeting with our member organisations. If your organisation is interested in Science Council membership, get in touch.