Peter Stanford: Boards should not be like cosy clubs

If we recruit trustees on instinct, we tend to attract and appoint people like ourselves, and this leads to narrowness of vision and an absence of new ideas, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

As I find myself having to scroll ever further down the column of dates to fill in my year of birth when completing online forms, I console myself with the thought that all those years of experience under my belt must give me an edge over someone half my age. We are meant to get wiser as we get older, after all; nevertheless, I find myself making the same mistakes over and over again.

By the time you read this, Trustees' Week will have been and gone. In the meantime, I've been reflecting on my own experience – both on a trustee board and in other workplaces – of the tricky business of trustee recruitment. My experience is curiously lopsided; one of the joys of being freelance in my day job is that, by and large, I have avoided the sort of work that requires formal interviews in front of a board. Perhaps my lack of experience of sitting in the hot seat before an appointments panel should prevent me from taking my place on the other side of the table as one of the interviewers. But so far I have managed to overlook that very logical conclusion.

So what are we looking for when we interview new trustees? I've never been a fan of tick-box selection processes, but the alternative – what my younger self called "common sense" – has its drawbacks too. If we go on instinct – and, let's face it, so much of what we do as trustees is rooted in an instinctive support for our particular view – the result tends to be that we attract and appoint people like us.

And that cuts both ways. Many questions have been asked of late about the lack of diversity – in age, socio-economic status and other factors – on trustee boards. That is partly about which people have the time and the money to spare to take on the role, and who can't because of work, families or whatever else. But it is also that trustee boards too often feel like members clubs: cosy, complacent and closed. Who would want to join?

Trustee boards too often feel like members clubs: cosy, complacent and closed

I've probably been a member of a few boards like that, and I've been put off joining others for the same reason. There is a narrowness of vision and an absence of a willingness to entertain new ideas. "Everything is going so well, isn't it?" - that's the sense they exude. Worse is the reply to new members with new suggestions that "we've tried something like that a few years back and it didn't work".

I was a great believer in small boards, thinking that on larger boards there was too much talk and too much potential for conflict. But now I'm more open-minded. One board I sat on for years has, since I left, dramatically increased its number of trustees. Chaos has not ensued, but rather, I'm told, a new creativity. You see, I'm young enough to learn lessons.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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