Charity careers and recruitment special: the dream team

It's vital for charities to find the right trustees, but how should they go about recruiting them? Patrick McCurry examines the pros and cons of three of the most popular methods

Charity boardroom
Charity boardroom

Every charity needs a trustee board with the right mix of skills and experience - one that can support, scrutinise and sometimes challenge the management team. But getting that perfect mix of trustees is not easy.

There are a number of ways to recruit trustees. Membership charities commonly draw on the talent and commitment of their members. Others bypass their usual procedures and co-opt new trustees. Another approach is to turn to advertising to reach a wider pool of people.

Recruiting from your members is an obvious way to find trustees and can result in a board that is more in tune with the charity's supporters and beneficiaries. It also gives members a real say in how the charity is run.

Mental health charity Rethink traditionally recruited its board from its membership using mechanisms such as regional committees. Mark Winstanley, director of human resources at the charity, says recruiting from the membership provided trustees who brought passion and commitment to their roles.

But there are some potential downsides. Louise Thomson, head of policy (not-for-profit) at the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators, says if this approach is not handled carefully it can lead to a silo mentality in the boardroom.

"Trustees who are members of the charity might forget that they are there to act for the interests of the charity as a whole, rather than the single-interest group that elected them," she says. Conflicts of interest then have to be managed, especially if member trustees use the charity's services.

The limitations of recruiting only from existing members have prompted Rethink to look at other ways of finding the right trustees as it has grown larger and its services have diversified. "We realised we needed some very specific skills among our trustees if the board was to perform its duty of scrutinising the management team effectively," says Winstanley.

This led the charity to co-opt several new trustees who offered the skills and experience that were needed. Co-option in this context meant that instead of having the new members elected by the membership, the board itself could appoint them directly.

Co-option is often used when a charity wants to bring people with different skills onto its board. Thomson says co-option is often good for filling trustee vacancies between annual general meetings and for bringing in expertise on a short-term basis. It can also be valuable when trustee numbers are starting to look like they might fall below a quorum.

But she says the process can present problems if co-opted trustees are closely aligned with a sub-sector of the charity or board and appear to serve those narrow interests rather than the overall interests of the organisation.

Advertising - the third approach - is usually used to broaden the pool of potential board members beyond a charity's own informal network. A wider pool can help charities find people with the skills their existing trustees lack and help make their trustee boards more diverse.

For example, lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall began advertising for new trustees in 2005 and has done so three times since then. "It helped us increase the skills and diversity of our board because we were able to reach people we wouldn't have reached otherwise," says Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the charity. Women now make up more than half of Stonewall's board and disabled people and ethnic minorities are well represented.

Thomson says advertising is also perceived as more transparent than relying on word of mouth. But it means charities need to be well organised, because they have to provide supporting documentation and 'sell' themselves to potential trustees.

Cost is another problem, and this might mean the method is less viable for smaller, less well-known charities, according to Claire Farmer, head of operations at Charity Trustee Networks. "For a smaller charity with very limited resources, advertising in a newspaper or magazine might be beyond its capabilities," she says. "But it could still pin up a notice in its local library and reach beyond its usual network in that way."

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