Board Talk: Only 2 per cent of trustees are aged 29 and under

Cath Lee and Alex Swallow discuss how charities can change these statistics

Board Talk
Board Talk

CL: The Charity Commission's statistics on young trusteeship are quite shocking - only 0.5 per cent of trustees are aged 18 to 24, and 1.5 per cent aged 25 to 29. But in some ways it is not a huge surprise that so few young people are trustees, because it is easy to see why trusteeship appears to be a more natural step to those who are further on in their careers.

Older people who are retired or semi-retired have a bit of time and have developed skills during their working lives that might give them confidence in their ability to make a contribution to a charity's board. Some people from this group have what you might call a 'portfolio career', with a handful of directorships, and being a trustee can fit quite comfortably into this.

AS: The lack of young trustees is a problem, because their presence on a board is good for all parties. The charity benefits from a new and different perspective, and from a potentially lifelong supporter. The young person gains a huge range of new skills that they would otherwise not necessarily gain during the early stages of their career.

Part of the problem is that young people don't think about trusteeship as an option. They either don't know they can do it, or they see it as too big a commitment. Perhaps they don't have enough confidence in their own skills and think that if they make a mistake that screws things up for a charity, it will play on their conscience.

The other part of the problem is that charities themselves don't know how to reach out to young people. They think there must be some kind of special formula for reaching young people, but in reality they just need to be recruiting more widely than through the old boys' networks.

Cath Lee, chief executive, Charity Trustee Networks and the Small Charities CoalitionCL: Yes, I think recruitment processes are where a lot of charities fall down. The trouble is, charities would have to pay if they wanted to run the kind of proper processes that would attract younger trustees, as well as trustees from a broader range of social backgrounds and ethnic groups. Many feel they can't justify this extra expense when they could recruit a friend of a friend for free.

What these charities don't realise is that you don't necessarily need all kinds of paperwork, such as a skills audit and a tight job description, to recruit a new trustee. In smaller charities in particular, you simply need to be able to spot someone with the drive and determination to do it well. Some charities put their own barriers in the way by recruiting for a trustee as though they were recruiting for a paid employee.

Alex Swallow, founder of Young TrusteesAS: And in a lot of ways it is easier now than it has ever been to reach a broad range of people for free, using Twitter, Facebook and other social networks. The real problem is that in some cases, both sides can be fearful that the partnership won't work. A lot of charities and would-be young trustees just need, dare I say it, a bit of hand-holding and reassurance that it will work.

CL: Another facet of the problem, of course, it that the dominance of older people on some boards can in itself be a deterrent to younger people. If you're the only young person on a board full of 65-year-olds, it might be difficult to avoid feeling that your involvement is tokenistic. There can also be some behaviour on boards that would be off-putting for a young person.

AS: Yes, although I haven't heard many young trustees complain of that kind of experience. One way to encourage more young people to be trustees is to point out that it looks great on a CV and will help you to understand an organisation from top to bottom, in a way that might seem beyond your payroll in your paid job. We also need to be making the case that being a trustee is not all about papers, meetings and budgets, but is also about meeting the service users and doing something you are passionate about. Adverts for trustees don't convey that excitement.

CL: Yes, trusteeship can be hugely gratifying. Charities need to be talking about the fizz and pop of trusteeship, and the butterfly moments when things go right.

Cath Lee is chief executive of Charity Trustee Networks and the Small Charities Coalition

Alex Swallow is the founder of Young CharityTrustees, which encourages trusteeship and supports young trustees

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