If you ask many small charities and groups, the answer to the above question is “not enough people”. If you ask most members of the public, they would probably look at you blankly and ask what a trustee does. Almost nobody volunteers for a charity because of the quality and excitement of their trustee meetings. People get involved because it is a cause, an organisation, a mission they are passionate about; people want to make a difference by doing, campaigning, interacting and not by meeting to check the safeguarding policy is up to date or the annual returns have been posted! Too often trustees are press-ganged into the role, I have lost count of the number of trustees I have met over the years who were dedicated supporters and/or volunteers of a charity and have been co-opted (coerced) onto the board because there was a need for more bodies.
Lots has been written about diversity on boards and this is something that should be encouraged, but too often the reality for most charities is that ‘we will take anyone who offers’. I know any number of charities who are so desperate for a treasurer they would happily accept the Count from Sesame Street as at least he understands numbers. Sometimes diversity or skills are less important than warm bodies who will turn up. We need to think about how smaller groups can turn this around given that there is no budget, and that there is less kudos and more work in small organisations, often trustees have to take on the day to day management tasks as there are not the staff or volunteers to do this. Arguably the role of say the secretary in a small organisation with a £50,000 turnover is more time consuming than it is in a multi-million pound one. In the small organisation you are doing it all, in the larger one you are checking that someone has done ‘it’.
Without a doubt a diverse, highly skilled, and well recruited trustee board is a positive benefit to an organisation. There are lots of people thinking about this at the moment, but I wonder how many will do so in a practical way for small organisations. How much of the advice will take into account the reality of working in rural or more deprived communities?
Recently Susan Elan Jones, the Labour MP for Clwyd South and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Charities and Volunteering introduced a 10 minute bill that has passed the first stage in parliament. This would add trustees to the list of activities that organisations have to give employees reasonable time off to attend, putting trustees on a par with councillors, magistrates and school governors. This is a good thing but there has been a recent issue with these bills making it through the parliamentary process. And anyway parliament seem to be obsessed with something else at the moment! – We can hope this is successful and you can find out more in this article.
If we assume that this happens will it help our small groups? Yes but …. What is reasonable time off? What does it mean to smaller local firms who may employ the local trustees? What does it mean for those in low income or temporary work who may be the trustees of the grassroots organisations? Will this mean more trustees for small local charities?
Should we pay them
My answer is and always will be no. This may seem idealistic but if you start paying people then motivations change and so does the whole ethos of charities IMHO. So, no payment but let’s be better about expenses. Encourage people to take them, if all do it, it won’t make that person who does need to take them feel stigmatised. If those that don’t need them donate the money back to the charity or another charity great, and we can claim gift aid, so great with a perk! Also remember expenses might include paying for child care or to overcome other barriers to coming out like a carer or interpreter. We all say we pay expenses but how many of us are doing it as no one has asked?
Open recruitment will make us more diverse.
That is what the research says, and I have to agree. But (and there is always a but), how practical is this for small groups with no budget and little experience. Luckily there are lots of resources available including a new guide from Getting on Board called ‘How to recruit trustees for your charity’ This has lots of advice that builds on the ‘Taken on Trust’ research. This included work to support 30 charities to recruit new trustees of which 74% were successful. Whilst this is great if only ¾ were successful when given significant help and support then it shows how difficult it can be for small organisations.
CCVS is there to offer some support so do contact us if you need help, but you have to sell your organisation and the role! Few organisations do advertise, and when they do it is generally in the free places where they are appealing to the ‘usual suspects’. By putting your advert on Reach or on Do-It, or for that matter on the CCVS website, you are advertising to people who are engaged. By advertising on social media, you are competing with all the other noise. This is a start but if you are looking to diversify your board you are going to have to invest time, energy and resources into this then. Use the above guide to try and get it as perfect as possible and be creative with your ad and where you place it..
Why do no diverse people come forward when we advertise?
There is an issue about diversity on boards. The Charity Commission has been (unhelpfully) highlighting this for a while. I am pretty sure that most of those working in the sector are aware of this. Unfortunately, open recruitment will not solve this alone. We need to address some fundamental issues which stem from the ‘that’s not for the likes of me’ syndrome. We need to look at any issues that exist about why some people do not see themselves as trustees. We need to look at why those from the working class or those from lower income groups do not see them selves as trustees. We need to address why there are fewer people from BAME communities who are trustees. We need to think why young people are not becoming trustees. We need to spread the word that trusteeship is about them, that they do have skills, insights and experiences that are important, we need to highlight the things that people can gain from being a trustee (there is a whole blog about what I have gained from it, but do check out this). If whole sections of the community do not see themselves as potential trustees no amount of open advertising is going to improve things.
So what can we do?
I think that there is a disconnect in the advice and the reality for small charities (those with an income below £100K). I also think that there is more that we as a sector can do, and more that we as a local support organisation can do.
- We see many adverts that list the skills needs for trustees as HR, finance, management, social media etc. and less that stress the need for commitment, passion, interest, lived experience. We need to get better at appealing to a wider group of people, we have to work to write better adverts.
- We need to find ways to make more people see themselves as trustees. This means that groups working with these individuals need to look at how we educate and inform people that charities want them.
- We need to find funders that will fund grassroots programmes to provide advice, support and training to get more people to become trustees.
- Charities have to want diverse boards and not just say they do. Often boards become ‘clubs’ and this is very off putting if you do not naturally fit in. It is important that all organisations look for new ideas and disrupters, and are able to engage with and encourage the change that they bring.
- We need to think where we are advertising and not simply use the usual channels, and this is where open recruitment needs to be better – if we have an advert that appeals to a certain group, we need to put it in front of that group.
- We need to put in place appropriate training and support for new trustees. This has to be from infrastructure organisations and also from the trustee’s own organisation. We need to make this support and training flexible and appropriate to trustees from all backgrounds.
- We need to be better at articulating both the difference that trustees make and the personal benefits that being a trustee brings. Many volunteering opportunities are couched in this way and sometimes it feels that trustees are looked at differently than volunteers when in fact it is simply one form of volunteering.
- We need to make our meetings accessible to different people, this means looking at the times and venues but also at the use of technology and how we structure meetings.
Without trustees the sector grinds to a halt, yet for many small groups getting trustees is an ongoing struggle. We need investment that will both help the groups look in new places as they recruit, and will also help more people to see themselves as potential trustees. We need good quality advice, support and training for new and existing trustees to ensure they are kept informed and up to date with best practice and legislation. We need everyone, including the Charity Commission, promoting the fantastic work charities do and how trustees contribute to this.
What I need to move my charity forward and be the best it can is someone committed and passionate about our vision. I can’t teach that, I can teach a bit of charity law, or finance or strategic planning.