This week is Trustees’ Week, and it’s also my first anniversary as a Trustee for East London community arts and wellbeing charity St Margaret’s House! So, it seems like a great moment to reflect on the things I’ve learned and the questions I’ve started to answer about being on a board.
- Why should you consider joining a board?
Becoming a Trustee is *such* a great opportunity for your personal and professional development. Whether you’re working in charity or not, it’s an invaluable way to see how an organisation works at a strategic level and use your skills in a different way. It can completely shift how you approach your day job when you better understand the decisions leadership have to make.
It’s also hugely rewarding, a great way to network, and a brilliant opportunity to make a real difference for a cause you care about.
- How can you find the right Trustee role for you?
However, not all charities – especially smaller ones – can afford to advertise vacancies, and many charities don’t operate a public recruitment process for their board. This doesn’t mean that they don’t want your skills though! I found my Trustee role through my former Chief Executive, who knew from my professional development plan that I was looking for governance opportunities. Ask for suggestions on Twitter and LinkedIn, contact charities you admire, and spread the word through your networks that you’re looking for a Trustee role and have x skillset to offer. Sometimes charities don’t even realise they need your digital skills or an HR expert until the offer is there.
- What should you know before you start?
It’s vital that you familiarise yourself with the legal responsibilities associated with being a Trustee. It’s not the same as other types of volunteering, or being an employee. Start here with the FSI’s Essential Trustee series and read through the Charity Governance Code.
It’s also worth considering thinking about what skills you have to bring – it might not always be obvious, and it might be different to those you use in your day job. For example, if you’re a people person, that can be a real strength for a charity taking staff through a change process. Or perhaps you’re a social media addict on the weekends and can mentor their marketing team. In addition, think about the networks and connections you can bring – could you connect the charity to new donors, press contacts, local influencers and decision-makers, or isolated communities? Try this quiz from Trustees’ Week to find out your trustee strength.
- How do charities benefit from having more diverse boards?
Research from the Charity Commission in 2017 found that charity trustees, who were older, highly educated, disproportionally white and disproportionally male, failed to reflect the communities they serve. This is a real problem when the majority (92%) of trustees are white, older and above average income and education.
I was lucky to join a very diverse board made up of people from a range of backgrounds, professions, ethnicities and ages. Already I’ve seen how this has strengthened our work – for example thinking of how to engage the local community in a consultation, seeing opportunities in digital, or making sure programmes are inclusive and accessible. As a young trustee with knowledge of fundraising and marketing, I feel like I’ve been able to bring some really different perspectives and skills to the table.
- How much work do I have to put in?
In my experience, boards generally meet 4-5 times per year. You may also be expected to go along to charity events and do some reading/preparation between meetings. If time is an issue for you, it’s worth clarifying this early doors before committing.
One of my key discoveries this year is that, while it’s a volunteer position and often life admin takes over, you get a lot more out of being a Trustee when you put more in. Yes, you could just roll up to four meetings a year, have a cup of tea and sign some papers. But being a Trustee is so much more rewarding if you prepare for meetings, come with ideas, and look for opportunities in the rest of the year. If you have the time, join a sub-committee to get into the grit of an issue and make a tangible impact.
This is especially important with regards to your legal responsibilities as a Trustee. In light of recent news headlines, it’s crucial that Trustees proactively investigate papers and challenge their staff (respectfully of course!) to make sure the charity is secure and risks are mitigated.
So, I hope I have inspired you to think about whether becoming a charity Trustee is the right opportunity for you. If you want to know more, check out the FSI’s free Essential Trustee video series, or visit the Trustees Week website.
Lindsay Harrod is Senior Project Manager (Special Projects) at the FSI.