Let’s talk about trustees, board diversity and succession planning

During Trustees’ Week two years ago, I shared some data and thoughts about the diversity of trustee boards. Back then, the picture revealed that trustee boards didn’t reflect society in all of its diversity; just 0.5% of trustees were aged between 18 and 24 and two-thirds were over 50.

My feelings then were that charities could do more to make trusteeship appealing and accessible, by thinking about the barriers to becoming trustees and actively trying to reduce them, by being clear on what the role involved and what the charity is all about, by considering what gaps are on the board of trustees, by offering training, induction and mentoring.

And now? Having spent two more years supporting charities, my feelings are much the same, something which may be borne out by updated research findings released yesterday. The research commissioned by the Office for Civil Society and the Charity Commission makes these key findings:

  • Men outnumber women trustees on boards by two to one
  • The vast majority (92%) of trustees are white, older and above average income and education
  • 71% of charity chairs are men and 68% of charity treasurers are men
  • The average age of trustees is 55-64 years; over half (51%) are retired
  • 75% of trustees have household incomes above the national median
  • 60% of trustees have a professional qualification; 30% have post-graduate qualifications
  • 71% of trustees are recruited through an informal process
  • In 80% of charities trustees play both a governance role and an executive role – they have no staff or volunteers from whom they can seek support
  • 70% of trustees are involved in charities with an income of less than £100k a year
  • Trustees report lacking relevant legal, digital, fundraising, marketing and campaigning skills at board level
  • Trustees are concerned about their skills in dealing with fraud and external cyber-attack
  • Trustees seek support and advice from one another – 80% of all respondents regard this as their most important internal source of advice and support, with only 6% seeking guidance or training from an external provider
  • On average, trustees donate almost 5 hours a week to their trustee roles

It should be said that according to the Charity Commission, “researchers surveyed a sample of 19,064 trustees, via a national survey in January 2017. Around 3,500 trustees responded to the survey.”

I’d like to know more about what the research findings mean by ‘an informal process’ that accounts for 71% of trustees recruited. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making a process more informal to reduce barriers (as long as constitutional requirements are followed), but if by ‘an informal process’ the research means ‘word of mouth’ or ‘asking around networks’ then that might account for a lack of diversity on trustee boards. In my experience (and in the experience of others), the majority of trustee recruitment is done by asking people personally. It’s understandable; trustees get a sense of someone’s skills and quickly see how they could add great value to their board. But this can have its drawbacks and make boards less diverse than they can be. Charities risk casting their net too narrowly, in a pool in which people are already in demand or already giving time to other charities; trustees may only ask people like them to become trustees. The risk here is that no-one asks the obvious questions, no-one brings different perspectives, no-one asks more difficult questions. Diverse boards make the best decisions.

Diverse boards make the best decisions and it isn’t surprising that the updated Code of Governance makes diversity a principal in its own right. On top of that, board composition, recruitment and skills are integral to principal 5 of the Code of Governance, ‘Board effectiveness‘. I’ve worked with many charities on trustee recruitment and the most successful ones are those that recruit through a planned process. Many have approached us desperate for trustees because a current trustee (or, more often than not, a whole group of trustees) will retire. Sometimes, it feels that the need to recruit trustees has been identified too late (and that’s when a planned process goes out of the window and people ask anyone who might be willing out of sheer desperation). Think about how unappealing it would be to be asked to become a trustee because the current trustees want to resign! This doesn’t give time to help new trustees to understand their roles and settle in and it could be very destabilising.

What I’m talking about is succession planning, an important though sometimes overlooked task of a board. It’s about striking a balance between continuity and fresh ideas and perspectives, . Here are some steps I’m currently taking some charities through:

1. Consider what barriers there are to people becoming trustees 

Knowing the barriers mean you can then work to reduce them!

 

2.  Follow your governing document and the law

Who is eligible to be a trustee? What is the minimum and maximum number of trustees you should have? How are trustees appointed?

 

3. Make sure your trustees are ready for new trustees

Understand what skills you currently have and think about what skills you need. Think about how you will welcome, train and induct a new trustee. Make sure current trustees are open to new ideas and input (the charity doesn’t belong to any one person)

 

4. Draw up role descriptions and person specifications

You should have a clear picture of what you want from a trustee and people should know what’s expected of them

 

5. Develop a way people can apply to become a trustee

What information should they receive? What processes will you use? Application? Interview? Invitation to a meeting? Who should they contact? How will they be welcomed? How will you train them? How will they be appointed?

 

6.  Target people and promote your vacancy 

If you’re looking for people with specific skills, think about: Where they might work;  What publications / websites they might read; How you will target them. Promote your vacancy as widely as possible, not just in your own networks.

 

7. Consider how you will welcome and induct new trustees 

Think about how to make any new trustees feel welcome. For instance, introduce them to trustees and staff, consider buddying, provide documents, plans and ongoing training and support.

And for Trustees’ Week, I wanted to share some useful resources and stories that others have shared which might be helpful for you:

Finally, I’m happy to support any Dudley borough charity that wants to think about succession planning, board diversity and recruitment and to work with trustees to improve their skills. Equally, if anyone is interested in becoming a trustee, I’d love to have a chat and link you up with charities that do wonderful work. As well as running regular drop ins with Eileen on the first Wednesday of each month, I’d like to know from you whether there is any appetite for specific events and activities around aspects of trusteeship. This might be a regular network of trustees, training and other support I might not have thought of! Feel free to let me know what might work for you and your trustees.

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