Charity trustees should be encouraged to claim reasonable expenses because it creates a culture that leads to more diverse trustee boards, according to a senior adviser at the Charity Commission.
Neal Green, senior policy adviser at the commission, gave a presentation at the regulator's public meeting in Norwich yesterday on the subject of encouraging more people to become trustees.
"If you think about recruiting trustees, there is a lot of competition," he said, citing the fact that, alongside the 164,000 registered charities in England and Wales, there are about 80,000 charities not required to register because they have annual incomes of less than £5,000, about 70,000 excepted from registration, about 14,000 exempted from registering and numerous other organisations, such as school governing bodies, that require trustees.
Green showed statistics demonstrating that younger people, people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds and people with disabilities were under-represented on charity boards, and that women were slightly under-represented, making up 43.3 per cent of trustees.
He said homogeneous boards could lead to groupthink, meaning there was not enough diversity of thinking around the boardroom table.
"There's a danger that you're going to just go on and on being increasingly isolated and irrelevant to your beneficiaries," he said.
The fact that trusteeships were unpaid could also mitigate against diverse boards, said Green, especially if trustees were encouraged not to claim travel expenses. "Encourage your trustees to claim reasonable expenses – there can be this culture of ‘oh, nobody claims expenses’," he said. "You actually start excluding people, because there are some who can't afford the bus fare to get to the meeting."
But he warned against bringing in trustees just to appear diverse. "Please, please don’t go for tokenism," said Green. "Don’t just get someone off the street because they fit what someone is telling you that you need."
Attendee Michelle de Oude, coordinator of the Norfolk Community Relations and Equality Board, said that some charities might be put off hiring people with disabilities because making workplace adjustments for them brought extra expense. She said that trustees with disabilities could not claim government Access to Work grants, which pay for employers to make reasonable adjustments in a workplace, and asked if the commission was doing anything about this.
Sarah Atkinson, director of policy and communications at the commission, said the regulator had not been made aware of this issue and promised to look into it. De Oude said she was surprised to be the first person to draw this to the regulator’s commission. "Really? I'm amazed," she said.
The meeting was hosted by the local infrastructure body Voluntary Norfolk. Other sessions were led by Atkinson, who gave an overview of the commission's activities, by Dave Walker, head of investigations and enforcement monitoring, assessment and development at the commission, who spoke about trustees’ financial responsibilities, including managing conflicts of interests, and by Jack Rowley, public affairs manager at the commission, who led a workshop session on Protecting Your Charity from Harm.