Michelle Mitchell: We need to talk about trustees

The sector badly needs more diversity on its boards, across gender, age, race, disability, faith and sexual orientation, writes our guest columnist

Michelle Mitchell
Michelle Mitchell

Now, more than ever, trustees are vital to our growing charity sector. Motivated people with skills, experience, ideas and ideals are needed to help steer our charitable organisations through an uncertain and rapidly changing external world.

Currently, the average age of a trustee in the UK is 59. Naturally, wisdom, experience and knowledge are important for good governance in the voluntary sector. But enthusiasm, innovation and diversity are increasingly needed in our rapidly changing economic environment. This requires the energy of a new generation of trustees.

Diversity is important across gender, age, race, disability, religious beliefs and sexual orientation. Trustees are expected to have empathy or a direct connection to the cause of the charity, but the insight of someone with relevant lived experience can’t be understated. We look at issues through different lenses and having that range of different views within the board is important, given its key strategic role.

A recent study by the Charity Commission has shown that only 2 per cent of charities have a trustee under the age of 30. Yet it’s many of the qualities that typify younger professionals that are most urgently needed in the not-for-profit sector today: technological savvy, flexibility and entrepreneurial flair. Having grown up with social media, younger people are likely to have an instinctive feel for communication and connectivity. And, in the age of flash mobs and Reclaim the Streets, they are likely to be more comfortable with disruptive models of communication, engagement and fundraising.

This is why, for the past two years, I have been pleased to be a speaker on the Cause4-led Trustee Leadership Programme, in partnership with Close Brothers Asset Management and with the support of the Clothworkers’ Company. This five-module course is designed to provide charities with access to a group of committed, dynamic and enthusiastic young professionals, and to make sure this fresh crop of talent is thoroughly prepared for the specific challenges of the charity sector. The Trustee Leadership programme, piloted in 2014, has already matched 97 professionals with trustee appointments.

The most effective trustees are collaborative and comfortable with change. Cronyism has been an issue for many charities, not always intentionally.  If the recruitment of trustees is handled only through the existing trustees networks, the charity is likely to get the same people with the same background. Estimates suggest that more than half of all trustees are recruited by friends and acquaintances. It’s not just unfair, it’s also ineffective. We need to avoid "group think" if we’re going to see ourselves through the enormous challenges that we’re facing.

At The MS Society, we’ve worked hard to achieve a diverse board of trustees, with a mix of men and women, people with multiple sclerosis and those who have empathy with the cause. The selection process is rigorous, transparent and fair. And, once elected, trustees are introduced to the organisation over several months. Building the board is one of the most important things to do. 

In general, too few potential trustees are aware of the opportunities in the UK’s charity field, or understand what a trustee role involves. It is surprising how little has previously been on offer in the way of training in this field, considering the demand.

As Britain becomes more diverse and welfare cuts deepen, the challenges our society face and the rate of unmet need are likely to increase. Now, more than ever before, it’s time for talented people to become charity trustees and share their skills and experiences to make the world a better place.

Michelle Mitchell is chief executive of MS Society

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