Don't settle for the usual trustees

Have you heard the one about the the media professional, the marketer and the lawyer, asks Peter Stanford

With most trustee boards I have encountered over the years there are a few recurring roles: the trustee with a media background; another from marketing/branding; and a lawyer. In many cases I accept the logic, as charities become ever more professional. But I worry that it has become one of those standard practices that is now so widespread that every trustee board feels duty-bound to include individuals with these professional skills, even if in reality they have little or no use whatsoever for them.

Let's start with lawyers. Most of them specialise and, like the rest of us, the more they do so, the less able they are to offer guidance on even the legal basics outside their chosen discipline. So before rushing to include a friendly lawyer for the sake of having one, first check what his or her chosen field is. It's no good appointing even the most eminent libel lawyer, however willing to help, if your major legal exposure concerns property or employment practices.

And even if it is a libel lawyer you really do need for guidance, how often will that be? If it is once or twice a year, is the trustee board really the best place for them? People like a formal role to tie them in with a cause, I know, but perhaps they should be on an advisory board or your friends' committee - then you can fill that trustee slot with someone else with a more immediately relevant qualification.

On marketing/branding, there is perhaps a stronger argument that, because this is such a basic requirement of the modern age, every charitable trustee board requires some sort of expertise. At its simplest, a clear brand and better marketing makes fundraising easier.

But again, ask the question: how central is marketing or branding to your charity's work and to the guidance your board offers? Is it sufficiently central that it demands a seat at the trustee table? Could a willing expert not be brought in as an ad-hoc adviser to the trustees when such questions are on the agenda?

Finally, on media know-how: I don't think I have ever met a trustee who (a) isn't worried that one day their cause might get some bad press, however unjustified, and (b) thinks that the newspapers and broadcasters should really be giving over more space for what their charity is doing. So it can be handy to have a hack there at board meetings to offer advice.

Yet - and I say this as a working journalist - the a-little-bit-of-knowledge-about-a-lot-of-things that media folk can usually offer needs to be balanced against the depth of expertise others might bring in that same vacant seat.

It is, surely, about choosing the best individual for the trustee role rather than ticking boxes in a trustee skills audit. Make a judgement on potential new recruits on the basis of their passion, their commitment and their knowledge of the cause concerned. Everything else, as far as I am concerned, must come second.

Peter Stanford is a journalist, was a charity chair for 20 years and is now a trustee of Circles UK

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