How can we improve the diversity of trustee boards?

 

The Trustees’ Week website has lots of useful information about becoming a trustee, recruiting trustees and topics related to running a charity.

Amongst its posts is one piece about trustee facts and figures, which says:

  • There are over 1,000,000 trustee positions in England and Wales;
  • Estimates suggest that almost half of charities have at least one vacancy on their board;
  • Just 0.5% of trustees in England and Wales are aged between 18 and 24, (compared with 12% of the population as a whole);
  • The average age of trustees in England and Wales is 57, two thirds are aged 50 and over.
  • 43.4% of trustees are female, and 56% are male(Each trustee is counted only once, though some are trustees for more than one charity. The figure for female trustees should be treated as a minimum as only those whose titles are certainly female are included).

In my experience, it’s a real challenge for organisations to recruit committee members and trustees, so I’m not surprised by the estimate that almost half of charities have a least one vacancy on their board. But from these figures, it seems that charities may be missing a trick when it comes to engaging with younger people. There could be lots of reasons for this under-representation; time, lack of support, misconceptions about what the trustee role involves. So I’m interested in what charity trustees can do to encourage younger people to take a leadership role. What ideas and experiences can you share?

One of the groups I support has successfully linked with a local college and now has a couple of younger people on its committee. It has also engaged other students as volunteers in technical roles such as photography and web-development, which is in turn increasing young people’s skills and giving them great experience.

The Trustees’ Week website has a page dedicated to young trustees and has links to the Charity Commission’s information on involving young trustees, as well as links to the Young Charity Trustees LinkedIn group led by Alex Swallow.

Of course, a diverse board isn’t just about engaging younger people, but involving people from other sections of society that might be under-represented. When we held a session on building an effective board, we discussed what the barriers might be to people becoming board members and trustees. The idea behind this discussion was that understanding these barriers were a pre-requisite to building the board. The kinds of barriers that we came up with were:

  • Accessibility – if trustees meet only at certain times and in certain locations, is this preventing people with caring commitments, ‘dis’abilities, religious observances from taking part?
  • Established group dynamics – could there be a perception that newcomers to the board will not be listened to or welcomed? Are current trustees open to people’s ideas, experiences and viewpoints?
  • Not knowing what’s involved – is it clear to potential new trustees what the role involves?

I’ve seen some instances where committee members have told us they are desperate for new committee members, but they haven’t communicated anything more than that, so that when a new member joins the committee, they’re unsure of what’s expected of them. This could lead to people feeling unhappy in their role and a high turnover of trustees, which could destabilise a charity.

Personally, I think the key to involving more trustees and thus to strengthen a board is to engage people as individuals with their own experiences and insights to offer, rather than as someone who can make up the numbers. This means thinking about those barriers to people becoming trustees and actively lowering them. Practical methods could involve:

  • Considering how you could involve people in meetings and decision-making. Some methods could include virtual meetings, meeting at different times of day or in a different location, offering out-of-pocket expenses for travelling to meetings, trying to make decisions by consensus where possible (as long as you still follow the rules in the charity’s governing document, of course).
  • Thinking about what skills and experiences current trustees have and identifying gaps. Those gaps could then tell you where and how to target the kinds of people you’re looking for.
  • Providing as much information on your charity as possible. A little web presence could go along way. You could include your charity’s mission, its values, work, stories, features on how you’ve supported a beneficiary, a ‘meet the team’ area.
  • Being clear about what you’re looking for in a trustee. You could include a short role description, perhaps a story of another trustee. If you’re looking for someone to perform specific tasks, like a treasurer, you could include a specific role description and outline what support other trustees will provide.
  • Allowing prospective trustees to visit – your trustee meetings, your activities – so that they can get a flavour.
  • Running a mentoring or buddying scheme to ease new trustees into their role.
  • Selling the benefits of being a trustee. You could do case studies on your current trustees (we’ve recently done features on Alison Sayer and Tom Keys). You could also find some inspiration on ‘20 reasons to be a charity trustee‘.

Are there any other strategies you could think of to help trustee boards to develop? Please share your insights!

And if you’re in Dudley borough and would like some further support with developing your board, or if you’d like to become a trustee, please get in touch.

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