Essential guide to running a community organisation

Volunteers looking at map of local community

Successful community organisations across the country deliver important services to their communities year round. Being involved in contributing to your community can be a very rewarding experience.

The challenges involved in running a community organisation include dealing with finances, making sure you are complying with legal requirements and dealing with staff. The goodwill and effort of volunteers, support from other organisations and common sense can overcome most problems.

Check the legal situation

Organise your management team

Establish effective administration

Get a grip on your finances

Know where you are going

Get the best out of volunteers

Get the right help

1. Check the legal situation

Different types of organisation offer different tax and legal benefits

If you are starting a new organisation, you will probably want to get legal advice to help you choose the right structure. Options include:

  • community interest companies
  • credit unions
  • housing associations
  • social firms
  • co-operatives
  • development trusts
  • charities and their trading arms
  • industrial and provident societies

Understand what the organisation's rules are

  • The organisation's rules should cover issues such as how individuals are appointed to the management team, what powers they have and how decisions are taken.
  • Most existing organisations will have written documentation such as a constitution. If not, you should consider preparing some to help avoid unnecessary confusion and disputes.
  • Charities must have a governing document, or 'instruction manual' for the charity, as a legal requirement.

Make sure that you understand and comply with your main legal obligations

  • Depending on the organisation's structure, you might be a trustee, director or a member of the management committee. All have similar roles and responsibilities.
  • You are likely to have a legal duty to act in the best interests of the organisation and the community it serves, rather than for your own personal benefit.
  • The organisation needs to keep proper financial records and may be liable for tax, even if it is a charity or a not-for-profit organisation.
  • You must take steps to protect the health and safety of people affected by your organisation.
  • If your organisation has paid employees (as opposed to volunteers), you will need to comply with employment regulations, including paying National Insurance contributions and deducting income tax from pay (PAYE).
  • There may be additional issues to consider. For example, if your organisation works with children or vulnerable people, you may have to carry out checks on those in contact with them.

Make sure the organisation is properly insured

  • You are legally required to have third-party insurance (at least) for any vehicles and employers' liability insurance if you have any employees.
  • You should have public liability insurance to protect you against any claims for harm or damage caused by the organisation.
  • You are likely to want to insure any buildings and their contents, and any other valuable items owned by the organisation.

Make sure you are protected against potential personal liability

  • In some circumstances, you could be personally liable for the debts of your organisation (for example, if the organisation becomes insolvent). You should ensure that you are covered against this risk by indemnity insurance.

If in doubt, take legal advice

  • You may be able to get free or subsidised advice. For example, from a supporter of your organisation or through a national association.

2. Organise your management team

Nominate a chairperson and establish his or her role

  • The chairperson typically leads the organisation, setting the agenda and chairing meetings of the management team.
  • The chairperson's key role is to get the best out of the management team through chairing management meetings effectively.
  • A skilled chairperson will understand individual members of the management team and what makes them tick. The chairperson will anticipate potential problems and help resolve differences of opinion, both during management meetings and at other times.
  • Where necessary, the chairperson typically acts as the public face of the organisation.

Appoint other members of the management team and establish their roles

  • Your organisation's rules may specify the composition of the management team and how individuals are appointed.
  • Most organisations have a secretary who helps establish effective administration and a treasurer to get a grip on your finances.
  • Additional management team members may be wanted to cover particular functions. For example, looking after the premises (if you have any) and roles relating to the services your organisation provides.
  • A larger management team can help reduce the workload on each individual, but often makes it more difficult to reach decisions.
  • Management teams work best when each individual has a clearly defined role and responsibilities.

Try to establish the right culture for the management team

  • A business-like culture can make the team more effective, but may not suit individuals who prefer the social aspects.
  • The key to success is to stay focused on the organisation's objectives rather than individuals' own pet issues and personal agendas.
  • Ensure that you are in touch with the community you serve. For example, by having representatives on the management team.

Arrange any support and training you need

  • Individuals may benefit from management training or specialist training relating to what the organisation does.
  • You are likely to want specialist legal and financial advice, either for specific issues or on a continuing basis.
  • Get the right help. A wide range of free and subsidised support is available.

Use succession planning to recruit new members of the team

  • The rules of your organisation may limit how long an individual can be on the management team.
  • Over time, organisations can become set in their ways or dominated by one or two individuals. New blood can help reinvigorate the team.
  • Members of the management team may not wish to remain indefinitely. You may find it difficult to replace them; word-of-mouth is the traditional way to recruit trustees and volunteers, so put the word out well in advance.

3. Establish effective administration

Deal with routine correspondence and enquiries efficiently

  • The secretary is usually responsible for basic administration such as dealing with enquiries. In small organisations, the secretary can usually handle this from home with a minimum of stationery.
  • Good record-keeping is essential, particularly for handing over the role to a new secretary.

Make use of technology

  • A website can be a good way of building awareness and communicating with supporters and the local community.
  • Email can be a good way of keeping people informed at low cost.
  • Consider providing the secretary with a computer so that organisation documents, emails and records are not kept on a personal computer

Prepare in advance for management meetings

  • Ask members of the management team to submit agenda items in advance rather than bringing up issues at the meeting.
  • The chairperson and secretary should work together to draw up and circulate an agenda setting out the main issues to be discussed. The most important items should be at the top of the list.
  • Anyone who needs to provide information (eg a report) should be asked to do this in advance (so that everyone else can read it and be prepared to discuss it) rather than reading it out at the meeting.
  • Discussing any tricky issues or potential problems privately in advance tends to be a better approach than leaving everything until the meeting.

Hold effective management meetings

  • Encourage a business-like atmosphere. Start on time, aim to finish the meeting within a reasonable time (eg an hour) and leave socialising till the end of the meeting.
  • Follow the agenda. Any new items that come up should be left till last - and if necessary postponed to the next meeting.
  • A good chairperson will encourage everyone to contribute to the discussion, but to keep their remarks short and to the point.
  • Effective meetings will reach decisions rather than just talking.
  • The secretary should take minutes giving a brief outline of the discussions and a clear record of what decisions were taken, who will be responsible for taking action and what the deadline is.
  • The minutes should be circulated to all members of the management team as soon as possible after the meeting.
  • Action points should be followed up (eg at the next meeting) to ensure that the agreed actions have happened.


  • Things are far more likely to get done if responsibility is delegated to an individual. Let the person who is responsible get on with doing it, rather than 'backseat driving'.
  • Where necessary, the management team should agree guidelines within which individuals can operate. For example, the management team might set charges for using the village hall, then leave the secretary free to answer enquiries and take bookings.
  • This should include giving individuals the authority to spend appropriate sums of money on the organisation's behalf. For example, the secretary might be allowed to order stationery up to a set value.

Hold effective general meetings

  • Your organisation's rules are likely to require you to hold a general meeting annually, open to all your members or supporters.
  • The annual general meeting usually includes reports on the past year's activities and finances, votes on any resolutions put forward and the election or re-election of management team members.
  • Use general meetings as an opportunity to keep your community informed about what you are doing and to encourage people to get involved with the organisation.
  • The same principles apply to holding effective general meetings as for management meetings. Requiring individuals to submit items they wish to discuss in advance can help prevent the meeting becoming a free-for-all.

4. Get a grip on your finances

Set up proper financial controls

  • The organisation should have its own bank account.
  • Even if you all know and trust each other, you have a responsibility for ensuring that the organisation's money is properly looked after. Withdrawals above a set limit should require more than one signature.
  • You must keep proper financial records. HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) may want to check them.

Ensure that everyone on the management team takes an interest in the finances

  • Even though the treasurer is responsible for day-to-day financial management, major decisions will need authorisation.
  • The treasurer should provide regular reports to the management team and highlight any key financial issues they should be aware of.
  • A good treasurer will aim to produce forward-looking information to help with planning as well as reporting on past financial performance.

Investigate fundraising opportunities

  • Many organisations are primarily funded by supporters and/or membership subscriptions.
  • Other opportunities include fundraising events and trading income from selling products or services.
  • Your legal structure affects how different types of income are taxed. In some cases, you may be able to claim additional tax benefits.

Produce an annual financial report

  • An annual financial report may be legally required.
  • Charities with an income below £10,000 must submit an Annual Update to the Charity Commission.
  • Charities with an annual income above £10,000 a year must submit an annual return including a trustee's annual report and information from the annual accounts within ten months of the end of the financial year.
  • Charities with annual income between £25,000 and £250,000 must also have their accounts independently audited. There are additional responsibilities for charities with annual income above £250,000.

5. Know where you are going

Remind yourselves of your purpose

Make time to ask yourselves:

  • What community do you serve and what services are you trying to provide?
  • How do you fit in with other organisations in your local area or providing similar services? What special expertise or resources do you offer?
  • How would you describe what your organisation does in one sentence?

Stay focused on your overall objectives

  • In principle, everything you do should start from this. In practice, it's easy to get caught up with day-to-day issues and lose track of what your organisation is trying to achieve.

Establish your priorities and goals

  • Assess where you are now. Define the goal you are trying to reach and what resources are available.
  • Identify your long-term aim. For example, to revitalise the village hall into a community centre that is the hub for locals.
  • Work out how you will get there and what your interim goals are. For example, recruiting volunteers to help, fundraising, publicity, repair works and so on.
  • Wherever possible, set specific, measurable goals with deadlines.

Periodically review progress

  • Check whether you achieved the goals you set. If not, why not?
  • If you have achieved your goals, what should your new goals be?
  • What can you learn from what has happened?

6. Get the best out of volunteers

Knowing what you want to achieve will help you identify what volunteers you need

Look for different sources of volunteers

  • Many organisations rely on a small pool of existing volunteers - but this limits what can be achieved and runs the risk of overloading individuals.
  • Supporters may be willing to get more actively involved - ask them.
  • Use local volunteer bureaus and other organisations.

Check that volunteers are suitable

Give volunteers the information they need

  • An induction pack explaining what your organisation does and your key policies can be very helpful. The pack should include information on health and safety and practical issues such as whether volunteers can reclaim expenses.

Use volunteers effectively

  • Try to give individuals tasks that suit them. Accept that some volunteers may work at their own pace or only be interested in their pet projects.
  • Keep a watching eye on new volunteers to get a better understanding of what they are good at and how they work.

Thank and praise volunteers

  • A little appreciation can go a long way to motivating volunteers.
  • Consider ways of publicly recognising what volunteers do for your organisation. For example, an annual volunteer awards ceremony or a thank-you dinner.

7. Get the right help

Make the most of existing organisational knowledge

  • If you are taking over from someone else, ask them for handover notes and a meeting to pass on their knowledge.
  • Check through any written constitution, minutes of previous management meetings and general meetings and so on.

Find organisations that can help you

  • Some organisations provide support to community organisations generally. The National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA) can help you find local support organisations.
  • There may be support organisations specific to your kind of organisation.
  • Professional help (eg legal advice) may be available from a supporter of your organisation, or through an organisation such as LawWorks.


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