Rob Jackson: A challenge to charities for Trustees' Week

Until the sector recognises that trustees are volunteers, it will struggle to solve its board recruitment challenges, writes our blogger

November sees Trustees’ Week roll around again. This is the fifth year the week has been observed, and the organisers have an enviable list of big-name supporters including NCVO, the Charity Commission (England & Wales), OSCR and infrastructure bodies across the UK.

According to the Trustees’ Week website, there are around one million trustee positions in England & Wales alone, with some estimates that half of all charities have at least one trustee vacancy. Two thirds of trustees are at least 50 years old with a mere 0.5 per cent of trustees are aged 18-24 (despite the fact that this age group makes up 12 per cent of the population). There are often articles such as this one from The Guardian in 2013 that provide advice to charities on how to diversify their boards and/or meet the challenges of recruiting new trustees. However, when (if ever) do senior managers in organisations turn to their volunteer managers for advice on trustee recruitment? In my experience the answer to that question is: almost never.

Despite all the great work of campaigns like Trustees’ Week, many people (often very senior people in the sector) still don’t see trustees as volunteers. Often the reasoning is that trustees couldn’t really be volunteers because they hold important, responsible positions. After all, volunteers are well-meaning amateurs there to make the tea, stuff the envelopes and do the low-skilled, menial work. Volunteers can’t be trusted with confidential information or given any real responsibility; so trustees simply can’t be volunteers, can they?

Some organisations acknowledge that trustees are volunteers, but assume this is what causes poor governance, which in turn leads to a lack of diversity and problems recruiting new trustees. Their argument is that, because volunteers are well-meaning amateurs, they can’t really grasp the complexity of the governance role or meet its demands. So their solution is to pay people to sit on charity boards because, as we all know, the better-paid someone is, the more competent and reliable they are.

So, as Trustees’ Week approaches, I’d like to see two things happen:

1. Senior charity managers asking their volunteer managers for advice on board recruitment and diversity

2. Volunteer managers offering advice to their senior managers on volunteer recruitment and diversity, and how they can help with governance recruitment

You see volunteer managers deal with the reality of recruiting a diverse range of people into demanding and responsible roles every day. They have the skills and knowledge to make a real contribution to meeting the governance challenges the sector faces. They talk about generational issues and age diversity in recruitment when they network. They are the experts that can really help solve the sector’s trustee recruitment challenges.

Despite all the articles & blogs that have been written, and all the advice given to charities by governance experts, the situation isn’t changing for the better. So, this Trustees’ Week, let’s make a change and talk to the experts in volunteer engagement: volunteer managers.

PS 5 November is International Volunteer Managers Day. What better way to acknowledge our volunteer managers than by giving them the opportunity to help solve our governance problems?

This article was originally published on the Third Sector blog

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